In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 36 - Curses and Blessings

It’s an afternoon filled with surprises – most of them good ones.


In the castle’s kitchen the kitchen maids were scurrying to and fro to get tea together, and Lumiere made adjustments to their activities as he felt necessary – not like Mrs. Potts was anywhere to be seen at the moment, but he had a feeling she was in a mood wherever she was because of the way the maids were behaving. He settled them down mainly by virtue of being calm and collected himself, supervised the delivery of the trays to the garden, and then herded them all back into the kitchen and set them to work doing other necessary things before going in search of Mrs. Potts. He was sure Cogsworth had already told her that Lady Belle was back, and given the fact that another magical incident had occurred just prior to that he thought he knew where she would have gone.

The door to Lady Belle’s rooms was standing open, and he stepped inside. A fire was crackling in the fireplace, and over it hung a large painting of a dark forest surrounding the fallen ruins of a stone castle with a beautiful sunrise breaking over the horizon. A small gold plaque was affixed to the bottom of the carved mahogany frame, the words The Castle of Ballanshire engraved on it in flowing script. He looked around, curious about what else the earlier magic may have brought with it, and saw that most of the furnishings appeared to have been replaced. The bed was smaller, the frame and posts carved from the same rich wood as the picture frame, and there were bookshelves on one wall which had a largish rectangular shelf set into the center of them that held a glass case containing a worn, leather-wrapped journal on a stand with an artful scattering of dried rose petals surrounding it. The bedding and cushions were all in deeper, richer colors now, gold and crimson and candlelight-hued cream, and on a hunch he opened the door which connected with the king’s bedchamber and found it newly furnished in the same colors and boasting a much larger bed which matched the queen’s. He smiled. “Zis fairy, she has good taste,” he approved, and then closed the connecting door again and went to fetch Mrs. Potts. Who was standing in the door which led to the queen’s sitting room, her hand white-knuckled on the frame. Lumiere looked over her shoulder and his smile widened. He detached the cook’s hand from the doorframe and moved her into the room beyond it so that he could have a better look, although he didn’t let go of her once they were inside. “Yes, very good taste.”

The sitting room was gone, as was the small closed balcony. In the balcony’s place were tall windows set at their edges with stained glass depicting autumn-colored apple trees heavy with fruit; that theme was continued around the room, which was now fitted out as a beautiful bright nursery. Mrs. Potts was shaking. “I don’t understand, I just don’t.”

Lumiere shrugged. “Ze curse, it iz broken now. You have not seen her, even her expression is different.” He waved a hand at the windows. “I am glad ze fairy was so kind as to think to do this. It iz a new start, for both of them.” He smiled when she turned a shocked face up to him. “Ze king, he iz different as well. As you would have seen, if you had not been avoiding him since he came back.”

“He shouldn’t have gone! He only went because of her!”

Lumiere pulled her out of the nursery, shutting the door behind them, and led her through the connecting door into the king’s newly-furnished bedchamber. She gasped but he didn’t let her stop to stare, just pulled her over to the room’s fireplace which now sported a new painting of its own: a full-length portrait of Adam and Belle holding the enchanted rose between them. The painted figures weren’t looking out into the room, they were gazing into each other’s eyes with so much love that Lumiere felt himself tear up. “That is ze way he iz looking at her now as they sit in the garden, Agatha – and she him. It was ze curse which made her forget that…ze same curse which has been making you wish for nothing to change from ze way it was.”

“I haven’t…”

“You have.” Cogsworth had come into the room, looking tired. “I should have seen it…well, I suppose I did see it, I just didn’t know how to address it. I believe I do now, though. Anton, would you please gather all of the servants who were here when we were enchanted and have them meet in the main hall?”

“But of course, Andrew.” Lumiere patted his friend’s shoulder and left the room, and Cogsworth spared a look at the portrait. “God, look at that – magic really can be an amazing thing in the right hands, can’t it?” Mrs. Potts sniffed, and he took her arm and led her out of the room through the servants’ entrance and down the back corridors to the treasury. Her eyes went wide when he pulled out a key and unlocked the heavy iron-banded door, and she set her feet and tried to pull him back when he made to go inside. “Andrew! You’re not allowed…”

“I am, because the king said so – he gave me the key,” he countered, and pulled her in after him anyway. “I didn’t figure it out until I saw the nursery, and then I knew we’d been looking right at the key to ending the last piece of the curse once and for all. Every day we’d been looking at it! I felt like an idiot. Now where did he hide it…ah, this must be it.” A wooden box with a piece of paper wrapped around it was sitting far back on one shelf, and he pulled it out and took the paper off; the top of the box had been carved with a rather crude representation of an apple tree, and it made him smile. “Well, in spite of all the other things young John is capable of, wood carving apparently isn’t a talent he can lay claim to.”

She touched the carving. “Why in the world would he put such a thing in here…” and then her eyes widened as she remembered. “Wait, apples. In the kitchen one day, he said the apples looked like…”

“Rubies,” Cogsworth finished for her. “He carved the box to hide them from himself and the king – the prince, at that time – because every time they saw the rubies the curse attacked them. It apparently took him nearly a month to make the box because of that, and he had such a headache after placing it that he couldn’t see straight and Adam made him go to bed in the middle of the afternoon.” He tucked the box under his arm and led her back out, locking the door again and then offering her his other arm. “Come on, we’re going to finish this.”

She took his arm, but she was shaking her head. “I still don’t understand!”

“I know, but you will in a few minutes.” Most of the servants were already assembled when they got to the main hall, and Cogsworth put the box down on top of the main hall table and then had Lumiere help him drag the table away from the wall. It had been sitting against a large tapestry, and he took hold of one side of that. “It’s time we all let go of the past,” he declared. “It’s time we took back our lives from the curse, the way our king and queen have. Now let’s pull this rotten thing down!” He gave a huge yank on the tapestry and it ripped away from the wall on that side…revealing a carved stone branch with gold-inlaid leaves The other servants moved in and pulled on the tapestry as well, and the moment the last corner left the wall the woven fabric crumbled to dust in their hands.

The stone wall behind it was completely covered by a life-size relief of a mature apple tree, spreading branches filled with gold-traced leaves, and below those leaves eight holes in the stone as though something had been embedded there. Cogsworth opened John’s box, the rubies within glittering; taking one out, he handed it to Mrs. Potts. “Agatha,” he said, “right now you’re the worst affected. Put it in place, break the curse.”

She hesitated, but only for a moment. Walking up to the wall, she reached up as high as she could and placed the ruby into one of the holes. A shiver went through the stone, just the barest vibration under her fingers. She kept her hand on the carved stone bole and felt it happen again and again as one by one the other servants filled the remaining holes with rubies, the very last one being put into place by Cogsworth himself. This time the entire castle shuddered, and suddenly a waterfall of light poured into the hall and cascaded over the carved tree, quickly followed by the sound of something crashing and shattering on the ground outside. Adam and Charming came running into the hall a moment later. “What in the world…!?”

Cogsworth bowed. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty; we were just doing some housekeeping and it resulted in our finding something rather surprising.” He waved a hand at the wall above the front entrance to the castle, which now sported three high-set windows rimmed with stained glass apple trees just like the ones in the new royal nursery. “We apparently had stone shutters on those, and they’ve fallen off. Oh, and the last of the curse has been broken.” He picked up John’s box and handed it to his king. “I’m not sure what to do with this now, though.”

Adam turned the box over in his hands, smiling as he ran his fingers over the rough carving on the top. “He probably carved it with his letter opener,” he observed, and handed it back to Cogsworth. “Please have that put in my chambers, if you would, Sir Andrew; I’ll return it to the treasury later.” He looked up at the tree with its shining golden leaves and glittering ruby apples. “My god, that’s astounding. I’d completely forgotten it was there, and about the rubies. The tapestry?”

“Crumbled into dust when we pulled it down.”

“Of course it did – and good riddance, it was hideous. No one was hurt, were they?”

“No, but we probably have the very devil of a mess to clean up in the courtyard.” Cogsworth gestured to one of the other servants to go see about that. “Lord Kepperson is guarding Her Majesty and the princesses?”

Adam snorted. “Kristoff is, he and Anna joined us for tea. Elsa kept John from following me by sitting on him.” Belle came hurrying into the hall, and he waved her over. “Everything’s fine, that was just Cogsworth and the others breaking the last part of the curse. Oh, and we apparently have windows in here.”

“And a very large tree,” Charming added. “I agree, Adam, it’s much better than that tapestry.”

Belle’s hand flew to her mouth when she saw the carved tree. “I…I remember that,” she whispered. “Oh god, I remember…my father lifting me up to see it better. He said every ruby stood for one king of Valeureux.” She pointed. “That one…that one’s your father’s, Adam, it was the last one placed on the tree.”

“Hmm.” Adam considered that, then shook his head. “We brought back a sackful of gemstones from our quest, but…no, I really don’t think we should keep doing this. Every one of those stones you just replaced on the tree is priceless,” he explained when several of the servants present looked like they might want to disagree with him. “John said that the first time he laid eyes on them; they’re so large he couldn’t even begin to guess how much they were worth. This is a beautiful piece of work, and we’ll keep it as it is in remembrance of my ancestors…but for myself, personally I don’t feel this is a wise use of our kingdom’s wealth. The gold and gems in our treasury are mine in trust for Valeureux, not a personal fortune to play with just to amuse myself.”

And the castle shuddered again, even harder this time. The golden leaves on the stone tree glowed, there was a blinding flash…and then everything was exactly as it had been, except that in the center of the tree’s golden leaves was now embedded a massive ruby, easily twice the size of any of the others, and below on either side of the stone trunk a carved plaque had appeared with the name of each king from the first to the last engraved upon it – five on the left side, and on the right four more. The name of each king was listed with some sort of additional appellation as well: James the Valiant, first king of Valeureux, followed by others such as Albert the Rogue, Josse the Mighty, Florian the Wise, Hector the Fool…and Adam the Gallant.

If Charming hadn’t caught his arm, Adam probably would have sat down flat on the floor in shock. Belle reacted before anyone else could, taking his face in her hands and looking him in the eye. “Adam, the magic speaks truly,” she told him, addressing the doubt and disbelief she could feel washing over her. “It does! You have always been that, always. Trust me when I say that even as a Beast…you were never a monster.”

He saw the truth in her eyes, she felt it. “How do you know…”

“There was at least one other before you: The Beast of Ballanshire.”

Lumiere gasped; so did Cogsworth. “Your Majesty, there is a painting in your room, a ruined castle in a dark winter wood. It is called ze Castle of Ballanshire.”

Belle turned in Adam’s hold – he wasn’t letting go – and nodded. “It was at least a hundred years ago, I think. The lord of that castle…he was a monster in a man’s body, and a fairy punished him by making his form match his nature. She also punished his servants for enabling his cruelties, leaving them trapped with him, inaudible and invisible except for their hands.” She looked at each one of them in turn. “You…you don’t know how bad it could have been had your prince not been an innocent when he was cursed, believe me. Their master brutalized his last chance for salvation, and she…she died in a hidden chamber beneath the cellar, unable to see or hear the servant who sat with her in her final hours, while the Beast rampaged through the castle searching for her, tearing off the hands of any servant he could catch hold of. Her death sealed his fate, and he died within days…but the servants were still trapped with no way to save themselves.”

Cogsworth moved to touch her arm. “Was it because…the castle was still standing?” She nodded, and he swallowed hard. “That does make sense. So you…”

“Ordered them to set it on fire – luckily there wasn’t enough snow to put it out. They couldn’t destroy the place of their own volition, the curse wouldn’t let them. There was a…a journal,” she explained. “With the dead girl’s body. They’d made a record of all that had happened, hoping someone would find it and prevent it from happening again.”

“Ze journal, it is also in your room, sealed in a glass case.” Lumiere had also approached to touch her, as had Annette, and the other servants were crowding in close behind. “You freed them…ze same way you freed us.”

“No, not ze same way,” Annette contradicted. “She was not trapped here, save by a promise. But zere?” Belle nodded, dropping her eyes, and Annette hugged her – somewhat awkwardly because of her current girth, but tightly all the same. “Oh, ma belle. In ze wintertime! Why did you not wait? Zey would have understood…”

Belle sniffed. “I couldn’t…once I knew what was going on, I couldn’t make them wait even another hour, I just couldn’t.”

“Of course you couldn’t!” Mrs. Potts had pushed her way in; she made Belle look at her. “Because you were never a monster either, Your Majesty.” She accepted the armful of tearful queen that got her with a sniff of her own. “There there, it’s all right. We all understand,” she said. “We were none of us ourselves, none of us. Why, I’ve been just horrible to His Majesty since they got back.”

“John did look like death warmed over when we first got here,” Adam allowed with a shrug. “I expected you to be angry about that. Although you must know, we’d have stayed with King Triton – or even in our parents’ palace – until he was more fit to travel if the weather hadn’t forced us to keep moving. We left the coast not more than a day ahead of a storm so large we could still see it on the far horizon three days’ ride later.”

“What did happen to him? There’s not a mark on him except for the one on his chest.”

“That one came from King Sel, Lord of the Northern Waters,” Adam informed her. “John’s mother’s family had usurped his birthright from him, as it turns out; he was supposed to be head of his line, the head of the family. The Mark he bears now is the outward sign of his rank in the North, and the favor of King Sel. The Marking did take a good deal out of him that he didn’t really have to spare, but it was John’s choice to go through with it, for the good of Arendelle.”

“So what did the fairy do to him, then?”

To everyone’s surprise, Adam started to look rather uncomfortable. “She…she was trying to drive Princess Elsa to madness, so to that end she tried to kill John and I both.” The cook’s raised eyebrow – and Cogsworth’s – told him that wasn’t going to be enough of an explanation, and he sighed. “She used magic to throw us out into a vast snowfield in the middle of a northern storm. The cold overcame John while we were still trying to find a place to shelter from the wind and snow. It took him nearly three days just to wake up from that, and he was still sleeping more than he was awake when we were forced to flee the palace because the magic which had been holding it together was gone and the storms were tearing it apart around us.” He cleared his throat. “We went back to stay on King Triton’s part of the southern coast after that, where it was warmer, hoping to give John more time to recover…but the storms were already making their way south and we were warned that it would mean our lives if we were camped out on the beach when one of them arrived. So we started back to Valeureux with as much speed as we could manage,” here he gave Mrs. Potts a short bow, “because Elsa and I knew John would be better able to recover here at home, in your care, than he would anywhere else.”

The woman’s hand flew to her mouth; there were tears in her eyes. “I…Your Majesty!”

He smiled. “You’ve been like a mother to me most of my life, Agatha. Of course I’d trust you above all others with the man who’s become like a brother to me. You and the others, until very recently anyway, were the only real family I’d ever had. Part of the reason I hated myself so as a Beast…was because you’d all become afraid of me.”

That had her enveloping him in a hug, which he returned just as any boy would on being hugged by his mother. Belle was dashing tears from her eyes…but she was also thinking, quite hard in fact. Adam was hiding something, something he was afraid to have become known. Even if she hadn’t been able to feel it, it hadn’t escaped her notice that he hadn’t said how he himself had avoided being overcome by the cold when John had been. And she was relatively certain that he’d have been quick to mention it if Elsa had used her powers to rescue them both, or if someone else had appeared to help them. Questioning John probably wouldn’t do any good, as he might not know what had happened…but Belle thought she should probably speak privately with Elsa at the first opportunity.

She approached her sister-in-law as soon as the garden tea party had broken up so that everyone might rest and change before dinner. Much to her surprise, though, Elsa seemed to know what she wanted even before Belle could ask it. They went into a little sitting room where they could be private, and then to Belle’s even greater surprise Elsa also brought in Cogsworth and her sister Anna. “This isn’t to become general knowledge, and I know Adam is afraid to tell anyone,” she began. “I didn’t see it happen the first time, of course, because I was in our parents’ palace and he was out in the snowfield with John, but I’ll tell you what King Triton told him: He said that love broke Adam’s curse…and love brought it back as a blessing.” That got a round of gasps, and Cogsworth sat down so hard the chair creaked. Belle had gone white, and Elsa took the other woman’s hands in hers. “He only changes if he wants to, or if something startles him into it; and he’s still Adam, all the way through, no matter what form he’s in. But Belle, if you still…” Belle shuddered, and Elsa immediately enfolded her in a comforting hug. “He wouldn’t, you know – before we came back, he said he had no desire to enjoy relations in that form. But can you accept him, knowing the Beast is a part of him? Can you accept knowing that he’ll protect his family and his kingdom with tooth and claw if his sword fails him?”

Cogsworth had regained control of himself. “He can…he can control it?”

Elsa nodded. “Highwaymen attacked us on the way back to Valeureux; he didn’t change then, or even think about it, he just drew his sword and told them to crawl back into whatever hole they’d crawled out of. The time he was startled into it was because he’d been dozing off in a chair by the fire and John screamed in his sleep. He thought the bad fairy had come back, or something worse.”

“She can’t come back, right?” Anna wanted to know. “You froze her…”

“And then Lord Sel buried the block of ice in a glacier,” Elsa confirmed. “He wasn’t pleased she’d interfered with his people, or with her trying to start off Ragnarok. He said the glacier won’t release her for a thousand years at least.”

“Good for us, not so good for whomever’s around a thousand years from now, I expect,” Cogsworth noted. He turned his attention to Belle. “Your Majesty?”

Belle swallowed; she knew she was still pale, she could feel it. But she could also feel Adam, who was worrying about something…and she thought she knew what it was. She needed to go to him, but first… “I’m glad he was able to save John,” she told Elsa, and meant it; she didn’t dare not, she knew, or even let there be some doubt that she did, lest she cause a rift not just in the newly-found family but also between the two newly-connected kingdoms. “And I understand why he’s afraid to tell anyone, he’d just gotten everybody to stop being afraid of him before…well, before everything happened.” She stood up. “Thank you for telling me, Elsa. I should go to him now.”

Elsa stood up with her, offering another hug before leaving with her sister, and Cogsworth bowed to Belle as she followed them. “Your Majesty…it truly is good to have you back.”

“Thank you, Sir Andrew,” was her response, and she found a smile for him. “It’s good to be back.”

 

Belle found herself taking the stairs at a measured pace; not, as some might have thought, out of reluctance to re-enter her rooms or Adam’s, but because the clean-swept stone and polished banisters seemed such a marvelous thing to her after long weeks of living in a decaying ruin followed by even more weeks of traveling. Even the lamps were clean, leaded glass gleaming like little panes of diamond as they illuminated the winding way up to the royal bedchambers. She did hesitate a moment at her own door, but only a moment and then she turned the knob and went in…to a completely different room than the one she’d been snatched out of, which was such a great relief that she had to grasp the doorframe to steady herself. It truly was all new. She didn’t stay to look, though, but instead crossed the room to open the door which led into Adam’s chambers.

Which had also been redecorated to match hers – or possibly vice-versa. She went in, closing the door behind her. “Oh my goodness, this is lovely.”

“It is quite nice, isn’t it?” Adam was standing in front of the fire, staring up at the portrait and looking as sad and worried as she already knew he felt. “I know she told you.”

Belle’s response was to walk up to him, and then very gently and tenderly wrap her arms around him, resting her head against his shoulder. The portrait was an excellent likeness, so much so that she doubted any of the servants had noticed the very telling shape of Adam’s shadow on the painted wall in its background. The fairy had known, then, perhaps she’d known all along…but that was a thought for another time. “I already told you, Adam: He was a monster before he was a Beast. You never were, and you never could be.”

He essayed a very slight smile. “I told John one night by the fire that I couldn’t imagine what use there could possibly be in being a huge furry monster. And then that day in the snowfield when he just fell over at my feet, looking more dead than alive…all I could feel was rage, Belle. But it wasn’t horrible, it was…freeing, in a way. Because I suddenly knew what rage was for, and exactly what a Beast was good for.” A blush stained his cheeks. “When I got back to the palace and knocked open the doors and one of them flew right off its hinges…I was just ridiculously proud of myself for doing it.”

“I probably would have clapped if I’d been there,” she told him. “What did Elsa think of it?”

“She screamed in rage and sealed all three of them in a block of ice as thick as a stone dam. Of course, she did think John was dead at that point – he certainly looked it – so nobody could really blame her for that. And John and I both told her she’d done the right thing, if only to prevent them doing it again in some other kingdom the next time they got bored.”

Belle felt a stab of fresh horror – and not because he’d just admitted that his sister had, in fact, been provoked into killing their parents. “You think…”

“If you’d met them, you’d think so too. They were terrible people. Not wicked, not really, but just terribly selfish and short-sighted, and unbelievably frivolous to boot. They’d thought absolutely nothing of abandoning me or my sisters, or the two kingdoms for that matter. All they wanted was to stay young and be free from any responsibility at all, and that was what the fairy had given them. In exchange for my life, and my sisters’.” He shook his head. “My father looked barely older than I am now, and Mother looked to be about Elsa’s age. They…they knew, Belle. They knew what the fairy was going to do. To me, to our kingdom, to the world even. They just didn’t care.”

“Could they have been enchanted?”

He shook his head. “You know our history, and now I know more than I might have wished of Arendelle’s. They were both horrible people even before the fairy got involved, even before they met each other, and they were so matter-of-fact about it that it gave me chills. John berated them for it, mainly our mother, and her complete lack of care for the harm that she’d done nearly reduced him to tears. She was responsible for his mother’s death as well,” he explained, going to sit on the padded bench at the end of the bed so he could remove his boots. “She was bored and forced his father to marry, and the girl she chose was sickly and considered too weak to bear a child…but she insisted the marriage bear fruit or John’s father, Sir Jonas, would have been out of favor and possibly out of a job. John’s mother died before his second birthday, and I can’t help but suspect that part of the marriage agreement had involved considerably more than just a dowry. King Sel told me John is the very image of the founder of the family line, and he knows the family has a portrait of the man so the resemblance alone should have tipped somebody off. Or the name should have, but interestingly his mother’s name appears on no records anywhere that John was ever able to find; even on the marriage record she’s only listed by an initial, K, and his father never spoke of her or kept any remembrances. But Belle, considering how political the court of Arendelle is from John’s accounts…a good many if not most of them had to have known anyway. It’s apparently an important, favored family, if King Sel’s anger at them over the situation was any indication, so it’s inconceivable to me that nobody knew.”

“So, a power play,” Belle agreed, joining him on the bench. “The queen offered for a daughter they couldn’t marry off, and sweetened the pot by agreeing to keep the connection a secret so they wouldn’t have to contend with an heir from her if one were to come into being. Is there anything we can do about them?”

Adam shook his head. “I asked King Sel if it was something we should try to rectify, and he said we were to stay out of it and he would handle the matter himself because it was his laws they broke. He was also quite approving of John, so I’m thinking that family may be getting a visitor sooner rather than later, if it hasn’t happened already.” He smiled. “Possibly a very naked visitor, as both of the sea kings we met tend to not notice they lack clothing when they choose to walk upon the land.” He raised an eyebrow when she started playing with the buttons on his shirt. “Belle?”

She slanted a coquettish look up at him. “Do you have a mark too?”

“A small one, not like John’s – I’m a descendant, but no longer in the line of succession for Arendelle’s throne.” He opened the shirt so she could see the palm-sized medallion-shaped Mark in the center of his breastbone. “Just getting this hurt like hell, I really don’t know how John took his without screaming – it covers half his chest.” She traced the Mark with a finger, making him shiver, and then her hands slid inside his shirt, pushing more buttons apart, and he couldn’t help but groan even as he caught her wrists to stop her. “Sweetheart, it…really isn’t nice to tease, especially after all this time.”

“Who said I was teasing?” She twitched out of his grip and pushed the shirt down off his shoulders, leaned in until their lips were a mere breath apart. “I missed you so much, Adam – once I’d come to my senses, I missed you every day. Please?”

He caressed her hair with a shaking hand. “I missed you too, Belle. I love you so much…”

If the king and queen didn’t make it down for supper that night, everyone just smiled and didn’t say anything about it. After all, they had been apart for quite a long time.

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