They had not been walking together when they encountered the Seven Swan Sisters. “We came to see if you needed our help again, and instead, you bring us gifts, Belle,” one sister said.
“What gifts?” Belle asked.
“You would hand us over?” Two-Eyes challenged Belle.
“No!” Belle said. “I’m not handing anyone to anyone.”
“They are our enemy,” One-Eye said, glaring at the swans swooping all around.
“Can’t that stop?” Belle asked.
“When they stop. For all time,” the fourth swan sister said.
“There’s no way but death? I thought you all hated heroes.”
“Animosity needs no hero for it to exist.”
“On that, we can agree,” Three-Eye said.
“That’s a start, right?” Belle asked. “Maybe there’s more you can agree on, you just don’t know it yet. It doesn’t cost anything to try and find out.”
“And if we do this…” One-Eye asked. “What then?”
“It could work.”
“And if not?” asked the second swan sister.
“I accept responsibility for it not working,” Belle said.
“Braver than a prince,” Two-Eye said.
“What do you propose, Belle, as our route to peace?” asked the fifth swan sister.
Belle thought. She pieced together the wandering of the swan sisters, together with the verdant property of the sisters One-Eye, Two-Eye, and Three-Eye, and Belle added one of her own experiences. “Are there any places where plants should be growing, but aren’t?”
“You expect us to garden together?” the second swan sister asked.
“No,” Belle said.
“Idle curiosity?” Irene Adler asked.
“No. I would like to ask all you sisters to help a family find a new home. They asked me to help, and I know you’ll be able to help them more than I can,” and Belle took the egg-shaped seed out of her pocket. “This is Hesperia and her friends and family,” Belle introduced. Instead of asking ‘can you,’ Belle asked, “Will you help them?”
“Yes,” said the swan sisters, landing and becoming women.
“Yes,” said One-Eye, Two-Eye, and Three-Eye in unison.
All ten of them touched Belle’s hand and arm to affirm their solidarity . . . And they felt a flexible sheath of armor enfold each of their souls: protection. And Belle could see and feel her goldness in them now.
There was clapping, and all twelve women looked at where it was coming from. The three sisters, the seven sisters, and Irene dropped to their knees… Belle following their example.
“Yes, I am the daughter of King Asmodeus,” said she who had been clapping. “And a hearty congratulations to you, Belle batmidas. You’ve united the ogres, Aras means, and all others.” The end of that War is near. Finally.
“All I did was break up a fight,” Belle said.
And you effected their souls, which will be spread to anyone they in turn touch, and so on. “Word spreads quickly, you know that. Influence ripples outward, encompassing many others.” She waved a hand, and the Nixie fell out of it, full-sized by the time she hit the ground. “In recognition of your accomplishment, her life is in your hands.”
“But -” Belle said.
“My judgment is final for all of you before me.”
The Nixie said, throwing sand and water-sweat from her body into the air where it took form as shadow-shapes, "Behold, the Great Chain of Being. A hierarchy of power. Illustrated here are all those who can manipulate reality with varying degrees of ease. The greatest danger for we in the Chain are those whose power is near our own."
A bear is more threatened by a hound than by an ant. "Even Rumplestiltskin?" Belle asked. Surely he would be near enough to the top to be unvanquishable.
"Even the Dark One. Open warfare between those on the Chain, tends to be disastrous even when there is a victory. Can you think how we fight without destroying the world?"
Belle thought of that woman in black. "Using ordinary people."
A nod. "People. Beasts. Some at the lowest rungs of the Chain."
"How could I have been so stupid?"
A pointed look.
"No, don’t answer that," Belle said.
"Look at chess. You were a pawn; what will you be?"
"The greater Powers carved the geopolitical lands and waters long ago - borders here, neutral sands there, autonomous pockets scattered throughout. Humans can change things, as you say, Belle: their actions can tip the balance one way or another - moving the borders or enlarging the pockets by their dealings with the Powers."
"Why do they need us?" Belle asked.
"Who would win: Midas or an unarmed man? An armed spearman or a disarmed one? Humans are a pointy stick.”
“No more stalling,” Asmodeus’ daughter commanded Nixie.
“Yes. Of course,” Nixie said. To Belle, “What do you wish? My remaining lifetime serving you? My powers?”
“No,” Belle said, shaking her head. “I don’t want either of those. I’d like for you to not plot or anything. Forgive and don’t be rude,” thinking of the Nixie’s snark-related remarks.
The demon Princess chuckled. “She wants jubilee, Nixie. Your desire is irrelevant.” To Belle, “Anything else? You can freely ask for anything, for yourself or for Rumplestiltskin - the Nixie will pay any magic’s cost.”
“That’s all,” Belle said.
“Then this I offer,” Nixie said to Belle. “In payment,” the Nixie said, “you can see a person’s past.” Smiling almost Cheshirely, she said, “And as a demonstration,” and laid a hand on Belle’s shoulder.
Belle saw -
-A man whose business is dying, whose family will soon become beggars.
- offer him success, at the cost of a newborn; he agrees, thinking they are kittens.
- watch him go home and be horrified.
“Now you believe, yes?” asked an amused Nixie.
“Go forth,” the demon Princess said, “and spread the news of this peace.”
All nodded and departed. Their paths would take them out of the ogre lands and into the kingdoms in time for the spell to pull them in.
As did Belle, who noted that her benefactor, the daughter of Asmodeus, was tagging along with her as Belle departed. “I suppose Rumplestiltskin hurt you, too?” Belle asked as cautiously as she could.
“Never met him,” Belle was told.
“The Nixie’s note was to take you to the Empress’ door. Her, I know.” She felt the gentle breeze going through their hair, reading the inscribed magics approaching. “Storm on the way. Small things will blow through.” As well as any Powers who choose to go. Then she said to Belle, “Go ahead.”
“What?” Belle asked.
“The questions you want to ask. Yes, I really am Snow White’s mother.”
“Actually, I was curious why anyone would leave you.”
The Princess smiled. “I knew you’d be a good person to talk to. Actually, nobody’s asked me that before - I assume it’s to spare my feelings. It was not from lack of love that he left. Perhaps he wanted to rule his own land. Perhaps our child filled him with fear: young demons tend to squall.”
“And you let him go?” Belle asked.
“You’re looking for parallels. I let him go to visit his family, believing he would return. He never came back, and tried to seek refuge from me. In my anger, I summoned my father and the court.” She sighed. “I envy you, Belle.”
“Why do you envy me, when I nearly did what… what that man did do to you?” Belle asked.
“Because you had the choice to do so, and you chose to return to Rumplestiltskin.”
“I chose… But surely you -”
“Have you ever compared your life with a peasant woman‘s ?” she asked Belle.
“And what conclusions did you reach?”
The relevant one would be… “That there were things she would never get to do, while I could; but also, she could make decisions which had been decided for me.” Such as Gaspar. Belle blinked. “You, too ?”
“Yes. That’s why there are so many stories of one Power or another loaning a man or woman their power for a day - for the span of that day, we can pick and choose. That’s also why, in all of history, only one person has ever tried to grab the Sheherazad Throne.”
They were almost at the Palace of the Empress Alice Sheherazad, when someone materialized in front of them on the trail. “I know you!” Belle said.
“Doubtful,” the Evil Queen said. “But I’d be hurt if you didn’t recognize me,” she added with a smile. To the demoness, “You.”
“You,” the more powerful of the two said.
“So,” the Evil Queen said.
“So,” the demon Princess said.
“So you’re the other woman,” the Evil Queen said.
“So you’re the one who did what I could not. I am in a good mood, and you cannot harm me more than our late husband did,” Asmodeus’ daughter the Demon Princess said to the Queen.
Entirely true, the Queen knew. “I have no desire any longer to harm you. Much of my magic, I learned because of you.” Jealousy, envy, and seeking to out-do you at something. To Belle, the Queen said, “You’re going to go through with it,” the Evil Queen said. “Don’t bother denying it, girl. I want one thing from you: I want to live my life, unencumbered by everything here. A new beginning without interruption.”
“That is why she and others have been so supportive of this endeavor,” the demon Princess said.
Endeavor? What ende- my quest journey? Belle wondered. “I’ll try,” Belle said.
"We have a deal," Belle said to the Queen. Belle shook her hand, and beheld -
-growing up, the Miller’s daughter, barely noticed; older brother receiving all the love and concern.
-brother apprenticed to a huntsman and later engaged engaged to a woman in town.
-hears how brother came too close to the Nixie’s millpond and was claimed.
-brother’s betrothed finds a way to set him free; makes a deal - hardship and disaster ensue.
-father is apologetic, beside himself, and devotes himself to being the finest servant a daughter could want.
Hmm…, Belle thought as the glimpses ended and she was aware of being here once more.
The Princess was smiling, and Belle was about to ask -
“Your Majesty,” both the Princess - smile gone - and the queen said to someone standing behind Belle, who held very still.
“You’ve both done well,” they were informed. “Magus Regina, you have kept yourself occupied and not frittered away your skills. Your feuds are at an end now.”
“Of course,” said Snow White’s stepmother, for even she could not naysay This Singular Majesty. And besides, this latest spell is the last resort, the final option, the only card left to play.
“And princess, you are doing well.”
“Aye, your Majesty, I am.”
“You may both leave me with Belle Midasdottir now.”
The queen vanished in a completely visible and thus non-snaky way. The demon Princess followed the water under the clouds.
Belle summoned the strength and courage to turn around. “Hello?” Belle said as she turned. Once she stopped, “I know you! Or I’ve seen you before.”
“You have. I’m Alice. The Demon Princess envies you, Belle,” Alice said. “I myself am in awe of you: you’re the first one who didn’t want to leave him.”
“’Him’ being Rumplestiltskin?” Belle asked.
“Yes. You aren’t the first maid he’s brought home - you’re the first who felt something for him, who didn’t flee the room when he entered, whom he felt anything for.”
“From all walks of life; they took with them the baby he procured so they wouldn’t be alone in his castle.”
So I was right, about Princess Ella’s baby? “How…?”
Alice said, “He has been the Evil One for a few decades longer than I have been Empress. And on the ship, I gave you the name of what I had been.”
You introduced yourself as Madenhad Rumswaif. Wait, that sounds similar to Rumwaef. - Alice Rumswaef. Alice, wife of Rumplestiltskin.
“And your expression tells me you have figured it out,” Alice said.
“You left him,” Belle said. “Like all the others did.”
“No,” Alice said. “I left the man. I fled the coward. He was braver than I thought, it turned out - a lame man, Rumplestiltskin raised our son…who abandoned his newly transformed father.
“But if you’re… Did Rumplestiltskin know he was marrying into the Imperial Family?” Belle asked.
“No, because he wasn’t.”
“Wh - I always thought you were a member of the Imperial Family,” Belle said.
“I am. When I was anointed, I became myself and more by far.“ In a way, I both died and was invigorated with new life. “Not entirely unlike our mutual dear one and his Evil One. Much like you, very soon.”
“You,” Alice said, enjoying the look on her face.
“Why me?” Belle asked. “Because -”
“You have earned it.”
“By not running from Rumplestiltskin?”
“Your kindness, your heart, your ingenuity. And your refusal to be a hero and refusal to shirk your responsibilities.”
“Isn’t there someone better qualified?”
“Not to my Imperial eyes.”
"You’re the Empress?" Belle asked. “You … You…”
"’Alice,’ please," Alice said, understanding how Belle was feeling, feeling a need to retread some ground just to be absolutely sure. “I selected you, much as I once was selected. The selection was to determine who would perform a vital task. At its completion, I was offered - as you will be offered - a place on the Imperial Throne. My time is over. You’re welcome to it. You’ll do good, whatever you decide.”
"I can’t. I can’t do what you do."
"You cannot do worse than I did," Alice said.
“You don’t know that," Belle said.
"Belle the Accomplished has united the ogres.”
“You defeated the Hero of a Thousand Faces,” Belle said.
“So you could say we each did our part to end the War,” Alice said. The Hero started the War, and the ogres with their hide-able souls saw no reason to end it even after my victory. “ And you are not done."
"Please, just let me go."
"Go where? What place do you have? You are here because you have not stopped running, Belle," Alice said.
“I could keep going,” she offered.
“No. No lands remain for you should you leave here. But there is an option. One which involves Rumplestiltskin.”
“I won’t kill him!” Belle stated.
“Death is no challenge. There is a spell on the horizon - use it.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Yes, you do. Take the Throne; take control.”
I can’t say I don’t want that: she knows me well enough to know that others have made my decisions for me all my life. Or have tricked me into doing something. My family, my protectors, that Queen.
This is a chance to be free of all that…by accepting a different set of restrictions.
Do I do it? Should I? “I…“ Belle said.
Alice nodded. “I understand. I tell you what, you use what power you have for now, and if you come back, be sure and tell me if you would like the job.”
“What power? I don’t have any power.”
“Your shadow shelters within you,” Alice said. “Everyone you have touched, all you have befriended, your shadow skimmed a miniscule portion of their power, and added it to your own. Your ogre peace you did on your own - your power now protects those who abide by that peace. And that is what great power is for.”
“If I agree to what you’re asking me, what do I have to do?” Belle asked.
The shack collapsed, revealing a stone stairway descending into the earth. “From there, you can go anywhere.
“I’ll keep watch until you return,” Alice said. “We’ll talk then if you’re interested in the job,” she reiterated.
Belle nodded and thanked her, half afraid to shake her hand - Alice took Belle’s hand and shook it - and Belle went into and down the stairway. At the bottom of the steps, she came to a carved grotto of a room with a central throne. The throne was made of solid jade.
Belle sat down on the green throne.
As she grew accustomed to the chill stone seat - Another reason why no one wanted to take their throne? Belle thought with a smile - her eyes were adjusting to more than just the ambient light, but also the writing on the walls.
“No, of, not on,” Belle said, her voice hushed. Everything was written, all movement ruled by its description. Belle had an idle thought - and became the providence responsible for the fall of a sparrow.
And all was at Belle’s command. “For now,” she asserted. And understanding came to her: someone with Imperial power needed to remain behind to ensure the existence of everyone who would not be moved by this spell - the ogres and all under their red sky. But someone also had to go with the ones the spell would relocate… And Alice picked me for that job.
Selected me to have so much power. “Show me Rumplestiltskin’s favorite flower,” Belle said.
That plant sprang forth from the floor in the next second, its blossom alongside Belle’s hand.
What about his castle? Belle thought, and her surroundings began melting away, replaced with the dining hall of Rumplestiltskin’s castle. But no sign of the dealmaker. “He’s been arrested, captured, imprisoned. I need…” Belle said, and formed a mental checklist of what was needed in the person she wanted.
A compact man materialized before her. “Edward Hyde, at your service,” he said with a flourish.
“Find whomever Rumplestiltskin becomes, and never abandon him,” Belle said, thinking how smashing it would be for Mr. Hyde to be able to see through the spell wave’s effects to at least be able to recognize Rumplestiltskin. If, like everything else now, that’s accomplished as well.
“Serve the imp?” Hyde asked.
“I trust your decision,” Belle said. You will be in the hinterlands.
Interrupting her thoughts like a loud noise, the magical Wave impinged on her awareness more and more as it grew nearer. The Wave lifted people from across the land like a cloth removing ink from a stone. The world remained, howling in its newfound emptiness.
Belle watched as it approached, and she could *taste* the magic of it. And she could glimpse into that oncoming water of neighboring realities, the nearest of which was -
“Kaylee! Could you get your [ ][ ] and tell me what this heading for us, could be?” Wash asked.
She did not know this place as Storybrooke. This destination reality.
Here, to her eyes and other senses, reality was a barely-discernable web around her. Her limbs were leaden; her mind was roiling chaos, without form, a void.
Over time, she began to form words.
When her mind was complete, she would emerge and walk the land.
For the time being, she was content to sit and wait in this padded cell.