I didn't think this would be such a long chapter. It also went to places I didn't expect it to. I will try to continue this with some frequency. Now, onto updating another neglected fic! But I hope you enjoy this.
The goings-on at the castle began to regain normalcy, although much flutter and fuss continued among the departing guests. Not everyone was leaving, but enough of them created confusion. It provided the perfect cover under which Belle could slip away in the simple outfit Philippe bought for her.
Little did she realize that a pair of eyes chanced to catch her exit. They belonged to Princess Eva. The sight raised alarm in light of the unsettling little show she'd witnessed last night, put on by the Marshland noble and the peasant woman. It had shocked Eva that she hadn't recognized Cora right away, even if peasants did look alike after a while. It disturbed her more that one had succeeded in posing as a guest and ingratiating herself among the royal ranks. She even danced with Prince Henry! It wasn't that Eva was infatuated with Henry, although an alliance between their kingdoms would bring obvious advantages; it was the principle of the matter. A peasant had dared to engage with a royal, and only the king had seen through her facade. Or so Eva believed until she saw Belle intervene, just as she had when Cora fell.
No, that's right. Eva had tripped her. She grinned at how much she had invested in her own lie.
Belle's cloaked form left the courtyard with a basket on her arm. Eva had a view from her guestroom window that let her recognize the girl from the green brocaded cape. She saw the blue peasant-style dress, too, and while that might have made her invisible to most, to Eva it was a smack to the face. What was she up to? Did her inexplicable fascination with the common folk often compel her to dress like that and sneak off? Did it have to do with the miller's daughter? The women had remained together after King Xavier's shrewd interference. It brought on a slew of questions that distracted Eva from enjoying the ball. She eventually put it out of mind and did not seek out Belle either during or after the festivities. It should not have mattered. What was one noblewoman's indiscretion, anyway?
It didn't make sense that the confusion and anger she experienced returned as strongly as it did. Eva wanted to pronounce Belle a fool and let it be. But she couldn't. She experienced a temptation similar to what prompted her to trip Cora. People needed to understand their place. The miller's daughter shouldn't be rewarded for her insolence with a noble's friendship. Belle was doing no one a favor. As the morning aged, the little imp in Eva's soul squirmed with pent-up frustration. Something had to be done - a harmless prank to discourage anyone from pretending that peasants deserved the same respect as nobles or royals. A memory from last night inspired her with an idea. After breakfast she tracked down a few friends to propose an entertaining endeavor.
She was simply touring the town, Belle reminded herself when she entered the market square. In spite of her hopes for more than an increased familiarity with the kingdom's people and landscape, it was better to exercise restraint. After all, one dance with someone didn't mean they wanted to be called on at their house in daylight, especially with this social chasm between them. Belle didn't pay mind to that barrier, but she could see Cora's annoyed expression when she first received (but didn't accept) the necklace. She had pride, and Belle would respect it.
There was still plenty to see in the town. It was more developed than her village. Signs of the recent storm and the handicapped economy marred its appearance, though. Several thatched roofs had partly collapsed. Shingled roofs lost tiles, too. People perched atop their homes and shops, hammering down tarred wood or laying fresh straw and mud. Some tradesmen had opened their booths for business, like the baker, the butcher, farmers selling their vegetables and herbs, and tailors. There was a tavern, too, which in the midst of so much damage and depression was doing well. No surprise. Many other establishments looked abandoned, boarded up and falling apart. They reminded Belle of empty, decaying walnut shells. The roads were a squelchy mess just starting to dry up. Lingering puddles threatened unwary feet, and more than one wagon caught a wheel in the gutter or a small hidden sinkhole. This once prosperous hamlet had almost come undone. It hurt Belle's heart to see it. At least Xavier's people and hers would benefit from their yet-to-be-discussed deal.
The baker's stall piqued her interest. Maintaining casualness, she greeted the mutton-chop man good morning. She surveyed what he had to offer and decided on two loaves of wheat bread.
"It's all local, yes?"
"That's all I can afford, I'm afraid," the baker said. His sideburns and the roots of his hair were tinged grey. Blue shadows painted the bags under his eyes.
Belle hand him a silver coin for the loaves. The baker brightened, then went morose. He tried to hand the silver back. "I can't accept this, miss."
"Will you take it if you tell me where you get the flour from?"
Despite his perplexity at her question, he said, "From our miller, of course. Why?"
"A friend told me there was no finer flour to be found in the land. The miller has a special technique to grind grain."
"Really?" The baker scratched one of the sideburns. "Doesn't strike me as special."
Belle shrugged. Contrary to her earlier efforts against raising her hopes, she was eager to meet Cora again. Too eager to feel guilty about lying. "I'm only saying what I heard. Maybe I can ask the miller myself."
The baker blew his lips. "Good luck with that. Never knew the old man had some fancy trick up his sleeve. He lives outside of town. Just follow the main road until you see the windmill. You can't miss it."
The road was much longer than she expected. Nor did she expect to find herself so removed from the town. The dirt highway continued through a forest. People passed by or came to town from the other direction, but Belle was mostly alone. She kept an eye open for wolves and bears and kept to the middle of the road while trying to avoid other pedestrians. Her heart pattered faster the farther she walked, nervous and elated. It was a small adventure. She prepared herself for anything to happen. Ridiculous as it was under sensible scrutiny, she entertained herself by surveying every huge tree and boulder in anticipation of a band of robbers. A snapping twig could've betrayed the presence of a wandering unicorn in her imagination.
What actually happened was more mundane and more startling.
After about half an hour, a creaking of wooden wheels crept up behind Belle. Not looking back, she stepped aside to let the person pass. Her eye arrested on a tree close to the road. It was crooked and gnarled. Belle thought it had an evil quality, then quickly scolded herself for immediately calling something ugly evil. In all honesty, though, it reminded her of illustrations of witches in one of her books. The branches reached out like arms and hands as though to snatch up unwary travelers. Her attention fixed, she ignored the person behind her until a voice called out.
The request turned Belle around. She halted and gasped. Cora stood a few feet behind her, dressed in her a plain peasant blouse and skirt and a brown wool cloak. Her hair dangled in a tangled twist over her shoulder. Her pushcart was filled with lumber instead of flour. The women regarded each other long enough to make it awkward.
Belle cleared her throat and smiled. "Morning, Cora!"
Cora slowly trundled closer with her cart. Her dark eyes squinted. "That is you, isn't it? What are you doing here?"
It wasn't much of a surprise to hear consternation, and even exasperation, but Belle wished it were otherwise. She did her utmost not to take offense. "I needed some air outside the palace. And I wanted to see the village. You?"
She loaded her question with stubborn congeniality. Cora could only roll her eyes and say, "I live here."
Belle swiveled her head for a panoramic view of their surroundings. "You live in the woods?"
The other woman sidled up to her and she slanted her mouth in a saucy half-grin. "Yes, that's right. I'm a wood nymph. I just pretend to be a miller's daughter for the glamour of it."
"A wood nymph that goes to town for lumber, I see." Belle nodded to the cart while trying to uphold a serious expression that poorly veiled her mirth.
"I already collected the branches around here that came down in the storm. I finished selling this week's worth of flour and picked up what other people hadn't."
"But you bought a cord, too." The branches covered a bundle of short logs that, unlike the gnarled twigs on top, were neatly chopped.
"Well, I'm not a woodcutter! Do you many wood nymphs who use axes?"
"I don't know of many wood nymphs who need to build fires, either."
Cora thudded the cart against the ground. Branches and logs jumped. She circled around the vehicle so nothing stood between her and Belle. She had the height advantage, if only by a handful of inches. Looking up gave Belle an excuse to tilt her chin in playful haughtiness.
"You're an awfully long way from the comfort of your books, witling," said Cora. "What do you want?"
Belle let her eyes momentarily glance down. "How about the benefit of the doubt?"
"Experiences have taught me it's not a good idea to give most people the benefit of the doubt."
After folding her lips into her mouth, sealing in not-yet-conceived words of protest, Belle looked down the road. "Is your house close by?"
"Eager to see how the common folk live?"
"If you insist, I'll turn around and never press the issue again. But I would like to see the mill, if I may. I'm curious if there are any design differences from the ones back home."
Still delivering a wary squint, Cora returned to the cart and picked up the handles to continue her homeward trip. Belle walked with her but kept a sidestep distance between them. She could match the pace thanks to Cora's restricted stride, which without the cart would have been long and determined and perhaps eager to outrun Belle. As they were locked in equal step, crumbs of small talk started to fall. Cora noted the bread in Belle's basket and realized she had been scavenging in nearby fields while Belle visited the baker. Belle asked if the ball dress made it back to its real owner without trouble. Cora answered vaguely in the positive while discouraging more questions. Belle pursued related topics instead, including whether Cora had attended other balls. There'd been one, Cora admitted, when she was younger, more optimistic and more naive about the world and her place in it. Back when her mother was alive and her father didn't depend so much on drink. Her tone barred Belle entirely from further prying.
They came to a bend in the highway. The woods on the left-hand side opened into a clearing populated by a small house and a small mill. The mill's sails gradually turned in the mild breeze. The house was moss-speckled and held together with dried mud, as if it were trying to blend in with the terrain. A large wagon loaded with sacks and barrels lazily lounged in front of it. A clothesline held up a row of drying socks, breeches, sheets, underwear and skirts. The dirt highway stretched on into the woodsy unknown, a mystery that would have to wait another day. The women turned into the clearing. The buildings stood quiet and apparently forsaken. Not another soul stirred in the vicinity. The closest neighbor was likely half a mile away considering the lack of houses for the last half-mile of road. No human sounds touched their ears—just the croaking windmill, the chirping birds and, somewhere Belle couldn't see, a gurgling stream.
Belle insisted on helping to carry the branches and logs to the stockpile next to the house. She expected Cora's father to pop out to meet them while they worked. He did not. He wasn't hiding or sleeping in the house, either, which Belle verified when they hauled in sacks from the wagon.
"Is your father away?" she asked Cora.
"More likely he's snoring in the mill. Or the tavern, if he managed to drag himself that far."
The sack contained different grains—wheat, rye, barley, oats—from farmers who harvested the crops and sent them to the miller for processing. Belle wondered aloud if the king ever imported foreign grains. Cora explained their arrangement with the local farmers. She and her father gave a percent of the flour back to them at a reduced price, took what they needed for themselves, and sold the rest at market and the palace. If any there was any imported grain, it probably went to millers closer to the border, or ones commissioned by the king.
"I see. You did say you aren't the only millers the king buys from." Belle followed Cora's gesturing hand to the pantry. The shelves and nooks were depressingly bare. Some root vegetables, herbs and dried meat hung from hooks. Two eggs sat in a basket, and cobwebs shadowed the corners that, by Belle's estimation, had been empty for a while. Bread was the only thing not lacking or in short supply. Her large sack settled like a baby hippo among its siblings against the wall. A cloud of dust puffed up. Belle coughed and ducked away, almost bumping into Cora.
Cora dodged past her with her burden. "Were you trying to think of how we could be more specialized?"
"It would give you a competitive edge," said Belle after finishing her coughing fit.
Cora chuckled as she set down the last sack with more ease than her helper. The bag came down softly enough that only a light dust layer leapt up and danced around their skirts. "Is that what people do where you're from? In this kingdom, all that matters is keeping the king and his family fed and clothed."
"That's no way to run a kingdom." Belle scrunched her brow as she glimpsed around her. The house, one story with only three distinct rooms, sagged in the middle. Hay covered the packed earthen floor, although that didn't stop grass from poking up in sneaky clumps. Beams and planks in various places started to show rot. The whole structure was tired and in need of repair. It could've been a comfortable dwelling, no matter how small, with proper maintenance, but maybe Cora and her father had limited handyman skills, or just limited tools. Or maybe they slaved so much to make ends meet that they simply couldn't afford the time and money. How many other people lived like this, she wondered. If it was a fundamental problem among the peasants, then King Xavier really was failing his people. Belle looked at Cora with mounting concern.
Her companion stared back with half-open eyes. Belle couldn't tell if she was simmering with quiet rage or was just weary. Her words, however, hinted at a volcanic heat Belle had seen before when she knelt before Xavier to "apologize" to Eva. "No, it isn't. But we don't have much choice, do we? Not unless we change our situation ourselves."
If an opportunity fell into her hands to make such a change, Belle didn't doubt she would take action, with or without anyone's help. As of now, though, they were equally caught with their hands tied. Belle turned the matter over in her mind, anyway, brainstorming for a possible solution or some assistance she could offer. She had no sway over Xavier's policies and no way to instantly alter the economy. If Cora's, and the kingdom's, circumstances were to improve, the process would be slow and painful. They had no magical fix-it option.
The discussion was set aside. Belle followed Cora to the mill where they poked their heads in and found her father napping on a pile of empty sacks. An empty bottle reeking of something sharp and heady lay on the floor like a ravished lover. Cora kicked her father in the legs until he stirred. He groaned and pushed his cap off his eyes.
"Father. We have a guest."
He pulled himself out of sleep and, seeing Belle, rolled to the floor and stumbled to stand. He coughed to clear his throat. "What time is it?"
"Late enough," snapped Cora. She picked up the bottle. It disappeared into her cloak. "Show some manners."
Belle pulled off her hood and introduced herself, keeping to her name and leaving out titles and homelands. Smiling, she curtsied and presented her hand for a shake. The miller gawked before taking the hand. His grip was clammy and weak, but he managed to squeeze her fingers and give an unsteady bow.
"Demetrius. You're a friend of Cora's?"
"Well, I'm visiting a . . . my uncle, but your daughter has been kind enough to give me a tour of the village."
Cora's mouth began to open until Belle sent her a sidelong stare. Her lips pressed together again for a second. "She's from another kingdom," she said to her father. "She wanted to see if our mill is any different from the ones where she lives."
Once this information passed through Demetrius' still groggy brain, his mouth bent in a smile, wrinkling his bearded cheeks. "Certainly, certainly. It would be my pleasure. Nice to know Cora has friends that want to visit." He raised his eyebrows at Cora. She coldly glowered back.
As he began naming and pointing to the crucial parts of the mill, Demetrius threw a lever that lowered a heavy winch, which in turn raised the mill's two round bedstones to meet their partner runner stones. That was all he did besides talk. Whether from sleep or drink, Demetrius' voice resembled crunching gravel, but it softened the more he spoke. His timbre and movements became animated as he elaborated on the history of the mill. It was built a few generations ago with wood and stone. The iron components were a later addition commissioned by his father, who had the parts welded by dwarves. Demetrius enjoyed talking about the mill more than working it. That became obvious when Cora, without a word, left the mill, retrieved two sacks of wheat, came back and climbed up to the elevated landing. Her father did not ask if she needed help, nor did he instinctively volunteer. He was happy to continue his lecture. Cora, with strong arms thanks to her solitary labors, poured a sack into the eye of one of the runner stones. The stone turned with the windmill, its individual nut and the wheels and shafts in between, scraping roughly against the bedstone. The grinding sent vibrations through the air and Belle's chest. They left her tingling. Seeds cascaded into the hole for pulverization, although some didn't make it and instead bounced and sprinkled on Belle and Demetrius. The miller admonished his daughter for her carelessness. Belle giggled at first, then hit on a thought.
"Have you considered setting up a funnel system?" Belle raised her voice above the noise of the stones and the gears so both of them could hear her. She described two types of chutes called hoppers and shoes that transported the seeds into the eye without spilling. Demetrius, in answer, scratched his covered head.
"I doubt it would make much difference in profit," called Cora from above. She dragged the remaining sack to the other end of the platform, to the second pair of millstones. She poured the wheat to the same effect. The dry, dusty residue from the seeds stuck to Cora's clothes, face and hair. She resembled a pastry dusted with white-yellow powder when she came down. "There's only so much the king and the locals will buy from us. Having more stored away won't earn us more coin."
"But having it means you'd have the advantage should there be another dry spell. That's why business was so poor these past few years. Or you could save the flour for yourselves."
Demetrius found the idea appealing. Cora didn't look as optimistic. She was probably concerned about cost. Belle reasoned they could work something out with the carpenter to build the parts to their needs given the appropriate measurements. When asked if they ever tried to sell in other towns, Cora expressed a more eager openness to it; Demetrius reeled and grunted objections over the time, effort and the all-too-little payoff. His remarks brought him and Cora close to arguing. Belle interceded with an offer to help Cora with any chores she still had left. Though her temper still roiled, Cora took the hint. The women left the mill, though not before Cora reminded her father to collect the flour when the millstones finished their work.
The women set to work on taking down the aired-out clothes on the line, folding them and layering them in the wide tub of a wicker basket. As Belle's experience in folding laundry was close to nonexistent, she watched how Cora handled each type of garment and tried to copy her. But Cora moved so quickly, not realizing what Belle was up to, that at last hapless noble had to ask if she'd folded a shirt correctly. Cora sighed, took the shirt, snapped it open and refolded it so the front was smooth and the sleeves were neatly tucked inside the main fold, keeping wrinkles to a minimum. She did it more slowly so Belle could memorize each step.
"I take it you have maids to do this for you," said Cora, dropping the shirt into the laundry basket.
Belle could feel her face warming up. "I'm afraid so."
Cora glared before taking down another petticoat. She shook it so sharply the cloth snapped like a whip. "Why must you act embarrassed? You're a noble, so of course you have people to do this for you. I do my own laundry because I have to, not because I enjoy it. Would you do it just for fun?"
"I guess not," said Belle. Although it was the honest answer, Cora's arched tone garnered a smile from her.
"Well! A straight answer from you for once!" There was a laughing, triumphant ring in Cora's tone Belle couldn't quite understand. It seemed important to Cora to keep the lines of status deeply etched between them when Belle wanted to scrub them away. It shouldn't have mattered so much, especially when it was only they and Demetrius. No one was watching, waiting to judge them and rain down retribution for their behavior.
"I'm sorry if I came across as inscrutable." Belle raised a skeptical eyebrow. "I'm not trying to be deceiving."
"Yes, you are," said Cora. She clipped her words. "You don't realize it because you're trying to deceive yourself, too."
Belle's playful expression yielded to confusion. "How do you mean?"
"You're pretending there's no difference between us. You can't really believe it, even if you want to." Cora paused in her work to eye Belle up and down. "Just take your clothes. They're styled like a commoner's, but the fabric is almost as fine as the dress I . . . borrowed last night."
This was an exaggeration, and Belle had a mind to point out that she hadn't picked out the clothes herself. Then she understood that admitting a servant had performed such a simple task would completely cut the legs from under her.
Cora started violently yanking off socks and stockings and rolling the pairs together. "You and I come from different worlds. How we see things is shaped by where we come from. You will never really understand what is it to struggle to put food in the pantry day after day, and work until your muscles are too sore to bear the weight of a single piece of straw."
Her imagination attempted to simulate what Cora described, but Belle's sheltered experience made it impossible to feel that soreness and that hunger to their full degree. She felt something else instead. An awareness of that reality budded in her—the burden of the serfs working to provide for their lords and kings as well as themselves. It came crashing in and made her shudder at the unfairness. The guilt of her privilege slapped her, stung her, and then pulled her down with its weight. She pushed back against it by grabbing a blouse and, paying attention to the creases as Cora showed her, folded it. The scratchy fabric against her hands didn't change who she was, or who Cora was, and the gulf in their circumstances. But it was something she could wrap her fingers around and feel the way Cora felt them, regardless their disparate experiences, and she could take the memory of it back home.
"You're right," she finally said. "But sometimes pretending is the only way a person can slip into another's shoes without having lived their life. I don't envy your life—it has to be hard in ways I can't even imagine. But I want to understand it. I want a better knowledge of the world outside my home and my books. I haven't deceived you about that."
Cora again stopped what she was doing. Her eyebrows dipped in a perplexed scowl rather than an irritated one. Unsure of whether to find it amusing or worrying, Belle looked away and folded a pair of long-johns, working not to wonder what Cora was thinking or where the long-johns had been. No matter her efforts, she eventually had to face Cora as she put the garment in the basket at their feet.
Her companion's voice sliced through the silence. "Why?"
Belle straightened. "Why what?"
"Why does my life matter to you? I'm just another peasant. There's nothing here—" Cora waved at the clothes, the house, the mill. "—that should hold your interest, except a charity case."
Belle pursed her mouth. "This isn't about charity."
"Then what is it?"
In the pause between question and answer, a bird twittered in the trees. Its song helped Belle think calmly and clearly. So did the murmur of the stream she still couldn't see, the teasing wind that fluttered her curls and the hem of her cape and made the clothes still on the line billow. Afraid for a moment that a sheet would come loose and fly away, Belle gripped it. It was itchy like the blouse, and unlike the sheets in her bedroom or Xavier's guestrooms. Yet its itchiness made the fabric more interesting, if still uncomfortable.
Plucking up her mettle, Belle looked at Cora's pupils, hidden in irises of dark russet. "I want to be your friend."
If the birds and the wind and the stream had any comment to make on Belle's declaration, they went unheard by either woman. Belle reined in her breath so as not to miss a sound of Cora's response. As for Cora, she flinched as though her entire face was blinking, needing a second to recoil and then come back to reality. Her eyeballs glimmered with moisture, though whether they did from tears could not be determined. Her lips opened, terribly uncertain, and Belle feared more than anything that she would again say the dreaded word "why". She didn't. Maybe from shock, or maybe from an overwhelming torrent of thoughts, Cora was at a loss to utter anything. Somehow, even in her flabbergast state, she did not look away from Belle. Belle returned that unbending gaze, only blinking when necessary. She was fascinated watching Cora rankle with whatever emotions she had kept locked up in some internal dungeon until now, and still fought to control before they broke through her mask. She felt guilty for her fascination, too, and was a little sickened that her guilt did not diminish her intrigue.
When the wind picked up again and almost tossed the garments out of the basket, not to mention nearly tearing off what was still fastened to the line by tenacious clothespins, Cora finally looked away with an accidental flutter of her eyelashes. She stayed calm as she rescued flailing sheets and skirts and in quick fashion folded them into lopsided squares. She dispensed them into the basket, which she scooped up and came close to dropping from the unexpected weight. Belle lunged to grab the handle closest to her.
"I've got it," said Cora, glaring up beneath crouching eyebrows.
"We'll get inside faster if we work together," said Belle.
There was a protesting glare, then it fell away with a sigh. Belle smiled at Cora's hard-won surrender and how it softened her features. Cora withheld any smiles of her own for a while. They hurried indoors away from the wind and the clouds shadowing the sky. As Cora showed Belle where to put which items where, drops of water started pattering the roof with encroaching loudness. Belle groaned imagining her return journey.
"You're welcome to stay until it stops, if you can bear it," Cora said with her back turned as she opened up fresh sheets to lay on her bed.
"As long as you can bear my company." Belle grinned knowingly and joined Cora on the opposite side of the bed, keen to take instruction on how to tuck in the sheets.
The rain continued and intensified throughout the afternoon and evening. Belle feared becoming a real imposition on the pair and volunteered to help at every task. "Keep this up and I'll have you cleaning the whole house," said Cora when Belle offered to sweep the bedrooms, after having already assisted with making beds and scrubbed the pots in preparation for supper.
"It's no trouble." Belle did what she could to ignore her sore, reddening palms as she accepted the broom. Like with the laundry, she had little idea of what she ought to do, although sense suggested she push stray straw along the edges of the floor. When Cora inspected her handiwork, she quirked a disbelieving grin and explained that the rest of the floor looked fine, but she needed to gather the straw in one or two piles pick up and toss out to leave the floor properly swept. Aching hands and a vague feeling of inadequacy aside, the chore helped Belle feel she wasn't making their lives any more difficult. Her hopes of the rain relenting crumbled when Demetrius jogged in through the door sopping wet, and she could see huge raindrops splashing against the muddying ground outside. Her delicate cloak wouldn't stand a chance against that.
"Good for the crops, though!" said Demetrius with a chuckle, and shook off the water like a dog. Cora ground her teeth and threw a towel at him.
"I'm so sorry," Belle said, still clutching the broom. "I didn't mean to be a nuisance by intruding on your hospitality like this."
"It's nothing. We'll make do tonight. And we're only too happy to entertain a friend of Cora's." There again was that sharp, unkind edge. Cora, rather than answer him with her usual bridled hostility, coolly shrugged and returned to the stew in the cauldron she and Belle had cleaned.
Supper was a quiet affair, and not as uncomfortable as Belle anticipated. Demetrius, for whatever reason, did not ask questions about where she was from, although he did ask if she had a fair journey here and express his hopes that her uncle would not be disturbed by her absence. Belle was sure Demetrius was not a very bright or knowledgeable man, but he was not a complete fool, either. He used just enough emphasis in certain phrases that made her hand pause while raising her soup spoon to her mouth, yet not so much to warrant a more excited response than brief, generic confirmation or clarification. Cora refused to meet her father's eye. In fact, she appeared be to block out his existence. She gladly looked at Belle while passing her bread and a large wedge of cheese that had somehow escaped both Belle and Demetrius' earlier notice. It evoked Belle's confusion and Demetrius' surprise and unquestioning delight. Only after she started eating did Belle make the connection between the appearance of the cheese and the silver coins she gave Cora for the flour yesterday. Her pleasure at the result of her action carried the taint of embarrassment from its blatant presentation.
By the time the women cleaned the dishes at the pump and basin and wiped down the table, night blanketed the rain-drenched woods. Belle prepared to either leave or negotiate arrangements to stay the night. Demetrius still forbade the thought of her walking home without proper gear. A lady should not travel alone at night, either. That settled the issue. He spoke with more sobriety, and it did well to persuade Belle to yield to his argument. Even Cora started to insist, though more mutely.
Belle thanked them and skipped the awkward question of whether they had an extra bed. She'd spent enough time tending to some of Cora's chores to grasp a layout of the house. The only other room besides the bedrooms, both sparsely furnished with a bed and a wardrobe, was the shared space that served as kitchen, parlor and tool shed. All she needed were some blankets to cocoon herself in beside the hearth. With a tiny hill of hay underneath and a gentle fire, she would be comfortable enough for one night.
Demetrius was indignant at the notion. He turned his budding anxiety on Cora. "Don't let her do this. You can give up your bed for one night!"
"Of course I can." Some of Cora's anger returned, but she kept it at a low simmer. To Belle she wielded a kinder tone, though no less frank. "You'll regret it in the morning if you sleep on the floor. It'll be especially cold tonight because of the storm. My bed is at your disposal."
"I don't need it. Really." Belle smiled appreciatively. "You're a gracious host, but I won't let you endure what you're trying to spare me from."
Demetrius started to speak. Cora silenced him with a raised hand. "I didn't say I would. We're two grown women, and my bed is big enough for two. There's no reason it should be a problem . . . unless you're uncomfortable sharing a bed with someone."
A suspicion niggled Belle's brain. Was this a test? Cora looked and sounded as grave as a cleric. There was only the smallest impish twinkle in her gaze that gave cause for worry. After some thought, Belle navigated through the argument and agreed that there was nothing altogether inappropriate or impossible about the arrangement. If even it was a test, she was ready to accept Cora's clandestine challenge. Demetrius, ruffled at first by the suggestion, permitted it once Belle complied without complaint or condition.
Cora offered her first call on the bedroom for changing, and a nightgown for the occasion. It was made of hemp, and while it didn't chafe as much as Belle expected, she kept her linen chemise on underneath for warmth as well as comfort. As she pulled on the nightgown - more like a long tunic - she heard a murmur of arguing voices beyond the closed door. They were soft enough that Belle had to creep to the door and put her ear to it to make out anything. Eventually the words became discernible. There was no trouble identifying who was speaking.
"You really do think I'm some dolt," growled Demetrius. "Just tell me, for the gods' sake. I'm not going to blab to anyone!"
"Oh, yes, you will, once you've have a few pints in you," Cora growled back. "Besides, she's no one important, all right? Nothing's going to change after tonight."
"She must want something. You can tell me that!"
"She's just a nosy girl who reads too much. That's it."
Demetrius huffed. A creak suggested he was now sitting. "So she's a noble with a peculiar interest in the poor? She's not even offering alms?"
"Is that what you want? To be a beggar at someone's doorstep, waiting around for people to shower pity on you? If she did that, I'd throw her out in a heartbeat."
"Dammit, child, you've no sense at all! Milk her for what she's worth! She's so sweet and soft-hearted she won't object. It'll make her feel good, I bet!"
Cora gave her answer in a low hiss that was hard to understand. "It's bad enough being the daughter of a poor drunkard. I won't crawl on my knees to satisfy some rich, sanctimonious idiot. She'll sleep here tonight, go home tomorrow, and that's the end of it!"
"You're the one who constantly complains about our situation. What good is your pride if it means making our lives better?"
Demetrius received no retort. Deep, uneasy silence prevailed. It was a full minute before footfalls padded around the room and Cora said, "Next thing I know, you'll have me whoring myself out to the whole town. I'll pay a price to get out of this life, but not that. Good night."
Demetrius whined a groan, the signal of a pending apology. "Cora - "
Belle gasped and bounded to the bed. She came close to falling off the opposite side as she rolled over it. With shaky hands she picked up the candle on the floor and blew it out. Her breathing took a while to bring down to a more normal pace while she waited under the covers for Cora or sleep to come. Cora arrived first. Belle lay with her back to the door and stilled herself to disguise her alert state.
Cora quietly shut the door. Darkness overtook the room. The one window was covered with a fastened canvas sheet for the rain to batter against. Cora's words reached Belle through the gloom like a poking finger. "You're not asleep."
After a few pained seconds, Belle turned her head. "I'm almost asleep."
She couldn't see anything, although her eyes began adjusting to the dark, but she was sure Cora had rolled her eyes. Belle turned over again despite that it made no difference which way she faced while Cora changed her clothes. She cringed at her hasty extinguishing of the candle without consideration for her host and bedmate. Before she worked up the nerve to ask where the matches were, or even apologize, a body protected by a burlap tunic slipped under the blankets, warming the space between the covers and the straw mattress. Some stalks poked Belle's backside through the casing. She dared not complain.
"Do you think I'm a sanctimonious idiot?" Belle said quietly.
The sigh she received made her wish she'd not brought it up. She couldn't help what Cora thought of her however she behaved. But Belle understood she came from a world populated by people Cora had no reason to think well of, and there was only so much she could say or do to debunk every unkind opinion. She even wondered if there were things she'd done to confirm Cora's beliefs - had she unintentionally insulted her? Made her feel like a charity case? How could she make it clear this was not what motivated her to come here?
"Which part upsets you more?" Cora asked.
Despite her anxiety, Belle chuckled. "You mean being an idiot or being sanctimonious? I guess I'd rather be the first than the second."
"That's quite a statement coming from you."
Belle beamed at that more than she should. It meant Cora understood how highly she valued intelligence and knowledge. "And that's quite the compliment."
"It's the truth, isn't it?" The blankets and mattress shifted as Cora adjusted herself. Her voice sounded closer when she spoke, which meant she'd moved to face Belle a little more. "Do you ever think sometimes it's easier to be a blissful fool? You said you wanted to understand my life - I guess you're the sort of person who has to understand everything. But truth is ugly more than it is pleasant. That's why the royals don't visit the village. If they stay in their castle, they can pretend nothing is wrong with us. Or them."
Belle turned over to face Cora. She could just trace the outline of her hair and face. What little light peeked under the door created a silhouette of her body, most of it hidden by the blankets. Belle liked how Cora's long hair snaked down her neck and across her chest to coil on the mattress. It could've served as a soft scarf. "Maybe it's because I'm cooped up so much of the time that I want more than anything to see the world. I see what you mean, though. But the worst thing isn't the unpleasantness. It's that I feel helpless about it. There's nothing I can do to change it on my own. And let's face it, when men are in power, they don't like to listen to women's opinions. They think we're irrational, or haven't the intelligence to make important decisions. Where I'm from, there's not much women can do to prove their talents and their strength. I had to beg my father to let me come here and actually do something to help our people. He's a good man, really, but he restricts me when he thinks he's protecting me."
"At least your father is interested in your welfare." Cora's fingers curled against the pillow, her nails scraping against the coarse woven fabric. "Since my mother died, my father can only drown himself in alcohol. I have to do everything at this point. And when he is clear-headed, he still relies on me to keep us from starving. He uses his misery about losing my mother and being a piss-poor miller as an excuse to hide away from his problems. If a man really cares for his family, he'd pull himself out of his self-pity to do what he could for them, right?"
Her voice was low and deep as usual. The more she spoke, however, the more it started to shake with anger and sadness. Belle bit her lip and searched in the dark for her friend's clenched hand. She found it, held it and rubbed her thumb along the back of Cora's fingers. Cora shut her eyes and sniffed. The sigh that followed seemed deeper and greater than her individual troubles. Belle heard the moan of every unhappy soul trapped in a situation the could not change or escape. She could imagine Demetrius sighing to himself like that in the other bedroom, alone and unable to tell his daughter why he couldn't meet her expectations. It wasn't fair that existence could be such a cold, tiring thing. If there was one thing Belle felt her books sometimes misled her about, it was happy endings. Sure, heroes had to face challenges and hardship before they reached them, but at least they found that their struggles had been worth it. What about people like Cora and Demetrius? What happy ending were they to expect? Was happily ever after restricted to the lucky few? Did it even really exist?
She suddenly remembered a quotation from a book of philosophy that had resonated with her the first, second, and fifteenth time she read it: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. Another followed: Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little. The words returned to Belle and sent a flash of resolve through her being. She lightly squeezed Cora's hand. "If you want me to, I'll do anything I can to help you change your circumstances. I don't know how much I can do, but I'm more than willing, be it great or small."
Cora looked up from under half-open lids. "What can you do? Talk sense into the king? Or find that wizard and get him to change things? You might as well try to make straw into gold."
"I don't think I have to do anything that extreme," said Belle, smiling. An idea came to her. She propped on her elbows and leaned in toward Cora. "What if you came to live with me? I mean, work as a servant at my father's castle. Or I could help you find an occupation in the village."
Cora's harsh snicker dimmed her enthusiasm. "Oh, yes, that sounds like a wonderful choice - be a miller's daughter or a servant."
"Trust me, the servants live much better than you do now. Yes, they do have menial work, but they never have to worry about food and domestic comforts. But you could find work in the village instead. Have you any other skills besides milling?"
"Not much else beyond sewing and cooking, and I'm not terribly good at those things, either."
"What about being a chambermaid for hire? Or . . . oh, I don't know! What do you like?"
"Like?" From the way Cora repeated the word, it was at once the most preposterous and most heartening question anyone had ever asked her. She was stumped for a short while. When she rolled onto her back to think, her hair pulled away from her throat and revealed some of her chest above the tunic's scooping neckline. Her eyes now accustomed to the dark, Belle spotted a glimmer of gold there and managed to stop from gasping. It was her necklace. The pearl pendant hung down toward Cora's right shoulder like a dew dropping trying to roll down her skin. The contrast between the slinky gold chain and the coarse clothes was mesmerizing. It paralleled Cora's natural beauty and the unkempt way she wore her hair - except when she appeared at the ball. Then not a stitch of the outward peasant could be detected. In appearance she had meshed well with the other revelers. Some coarseness had remained, though, and in all truth Belle was grateful for that. Too much refinement made people milk-blooded and eager to foist the uglier responsibilities of keeping a kingdom in order on others.
Cora widened her eyes and gave her answer. "I like flowers. We have a nice little garden with herbs and a few vegetables. But if I wanted to take care of plants as my livelihood, I'd prefer flowers. Even uncultured flowers are beautiful, if not as much as what grow in hothouses. Are there people who grow and sell flowers in your village?"
"Sure!" Belle lay back down, still wound up in excitement. "We also have a gardener at the castle who is getting up in years. He'd probably appreciate the help."
"You're really determined to have me working at your home."
"Well, it means I would see you more often." Belle's smile brightened, then dropped a little. "What about your father? Would he be willing to leave the mill and start over?"
"If having a new and better life means leaving all this behind, I won't let him or anyone stop me. He can do as he likes."
"But . . . won't he be upset if you go?"
"It doesn't matter. I don't owe him anything."
Her surety in this had Belle shuddering. She respected Cora's resolve, but to be on such bad terms with one's family so as to make leaving them an easy choice disturbed her. Anger rather than disinterest might have been the source of her cutting declaration.
Belle conceded to Cora's decision. She then relaxed into the mattress while training adept eyes on her companion. She brought her hand near Cora's once more but did not yet touch it. "I'm sorry about your mother. I lost mine, too."
Cora took a breath that came close to a gasp, only slower and more controlled. She was trying to hide her surprise at this coincidence. No success there. "I see. Sorry to hear that."
"Do you . . . want to talk about it?" Belle nipped her lip a second time.
"If I did, we'd be up all night. Maybe some other time."
That sounded like a 'no', but not a definitive 'no'. "I'll hold you to that." Belle put in a soft, short laugh as assurance that she was being half-serious. She agreed that they should get to sleep. "But before we do, I just want to say I'm glad you still have the necklace."
Cora touched the pendant. She gripped it between two fingers as if it were a pea she might squish if she wasn't careful. "Why? You want it back?"
Belle took the chance to press her hand on Cora's fingers. "You better hold on to it. It looks very well on you."
Although they were both keeping warm in bed, her fingers felt cool. Even icy. Poor circulation? That didn't appear to fit a young woman who was so active. Belle had an urge to keep her grasp on them until they heated up. It had been a long while since she last had physical contact like this with someone besides her father. She liked holding his hands when he needed comforting. It was how her mother would calm her whenever she got upset as a child. From instinct and memories, Belle took Cora's hand in both of hers and rubbed it under her skin flushed with warmth. The need to explain never crossed her mind - the quick brushing action up and down on the back of Cora's hand, from her wrist to fingertips, seemed to say enough. When her work was done, Belle looked at Cora's slightly bemused expression, wished her a friendly goodnight, let her hand free and rolled away with her back to her again. She didn't realize the neckline of her own nightgown had been pulled down her shoulder until, after a few undisturbed minutes, Cora pulled it back up and covered Belle's goosepimpled flesh. Belle thanked her and, still feeling a happy flutter in her stomach, soon fell into sleep.