A Golden Memory
Whilst her sister suddenly seemed to have mysteriously vanished elsewhere for a few moments, Belle found herself approached by the Empress.
“My dear Belle,” she said, kindly, “you’ve grown so beautiful since we last met.”
Belle smiled, politely. “Yes. I’m sorry we didn’t get much of an opportunity to talk that evening.”
“So am I,” sighed the Empress, guiding her down beside her on the sofa. “I had a present for you too, you know, but I never got a chance to give it to you.”
“I’m honoured,” Belle exclaimed. So, the Empress hadn’t favoured her over her sister, then?
“Well, I have it with me now. I would have sent it to you but I was worried it might get damaged.”
From the beaded bag she carried with her, the Empress drew out a large hand mirror, ornately carved from white ivory with painted pink rose petals and green leaves decorating the frame and handle. “Oh, it’s beautiful!” gasped Belle, turning it over in her hands. “Thank you so much!”
“You’re very welcome,” smiled the Empress.
That was when Phoebus had noticed Shan was missing and then Shan had come in with Anya behind him and she had claimed to have kept him talking, arousing Belle’s curiosity deeply.
“You two must come to the palace for tea, now you’re young ladies,” announced the Empress before the evening was over.
Anya’s hopes soared. Another chance to be with her beloved again. “We’d be honoured,” she smiled.
“Oh, yes,” agreed Belle.
“Perfect! Tomorrow at midday, then,” smiled the Empress.
It wasn’t until long after the Empress and her train had departed that Belle was able to get an opportunity alone with her sister. She didn’t mind admitting that she too was excited about going to the Empress’ palace the next day; after all, that Phoebus was very charming. She said as much to Bartok as she changed for bed.
“Well, now, sweetie, looks like your luck might be changing after all,” he commented, with his eyes closed.
“I know.” Belle hesitated, trying the laces of her nightgown. “Bartok, Anya was acting a little strangely tonight; she fainted when one of the Empress’ guards came in and she doesn’t usually tend to faint at the sight of a man, no matter how good looking he is, and this one certainly wasn’t.”
“Maybe she knows him,” Bartok suggested.
Belle hadn’t thought of that but it was a possibility. “Maybe. I want to talk to her about it.”
“Careful,” Bartok advised. “She might just think you’re being nosy.”
Belle smiled. “Well, maybe I am, but she’s my sister and, well...”
“I understand, sweetie. Good luck.”
Belle left the room, after making certain that Pavlova had given up trying to eat Bartok, and made her way to Anya’s room. She knocked on the door.
“Come in!” called Anya, and when Belle stepped into the room, she was busily tying up her hair with a ribbon. “Oh, Belle, hi,” she added, with a frown. Belle didn’t usually make a habit of coming to see her before bed. “Everything ok?”
“Yes, I just wanted a word,” Belle said.
“Oh.” Anya sat down on the bedroom floor and gestured for her sister to do the same. “Go ahead. What is it?”
“Well, I just wanted to make sure you’re alright, really. I mean, when you fainted earlier...”
Anya bit her lip. Belle was old enough to know the truth now, after all. “It wasn’t the heat that made me swoon, Belle.”
“I didn’t think it was.”
Anya sighed and prepared herself to tell the story. “Well, you remember two years ago when we went up to stay that summer at the lake house?”
“The summer we thought we lost you?” Belle allowed herself to be transported back to that lovely golden summer when she was fifteen, Anya seventeen, Derek twenty and Ferdinand twenty two. That had been a lovely time; they had spent so many days outdoors, riding and running through glorious meadows full of flowers and bathing in the lake. It was a golden memory that Belle treasured; full of happy times when they had been free to be themselves all summer.
Up until they thought they had lost Anya.
“You never told us exactly what happened to you,” Belle said.
“If I did that, I’d bring shame on the whole family,” sighed Anya. “Well, the bit about me getting lost in the woods, I did tell you, they needed some excuse. But, when I was lost, I met someone.”
“So you know him?” Belle exclaimed.
“Yes. Quite intimately, actually.”
“Oh, Anya, you didn’t-!”
“Keep your voice down, or Mama will be up here!”
“Sorry!” Belle clapped her hands over her mouth as the realisation washed over her. “Oh, Anya!”
“You don’t understand,” Anya sighed. “He was a bandit back then, a rough and tumble man, but something about him, I don’t know what, attracted me to him. I spent a lot of time with him. He told me about his past; he had a harsh background and now he was just trying to scrape a living on his own, praying that one day he’d find some honest work somewhere. Suddenly I was hearing this very sad story of a man who wanted something different than what he had. Like me. We sort of...clicked.”
“You loved him?”
“I still do; more than anyone can ever know. We spent that entire night together.”
Belle hesitated. “How many times did you..?”
Anya nodded. “I was ecstatic. I felt like I could leap off the roof of the lake house and fly. But when I woke up, he’d gone. I was heartbroken.”
“No wonder you never told us about it,” Belle realised.
“I thought he’d had his fill of me and just abandoned me; I thought his love was a lie. But now I know it wasn’t. He told me he left me because he knew I was a lady. Even now, while he does make an honest living, he’s still a servant. What kind of life could we ever have together?”
Belle put a hand on her sister’s knee. “It’ll be alright,” she said, although she didn’t know how. “I always thought you’d fall in love with a duke or a prince or something. You just seemed the type.”
“Because of all the grooming?” Anya shook her head. “I hate that, Belle. I hate that they keep lavishing me with praise and causing a rift between you guys and me. That’s not how families work.” She sighed. “You must hate me.”
“I’ve never hated you, Anya,” Belle said, honestly. “But I always thought you liked them doting on you.”
“Please. Would you like them to keep primping and preening you and telling you to look your best all the time and heaping all the praise on you when your other siblings deserve some too? It makes me feel awful. My life’s not my own. It’s like being a prisoner in my own home. When I’m with Shan, I feel free.”
Belle felt like crying. She had completely misjudged her sister. “Anya, I’m so sorry.”
The two sisters hugged. “No matter what our parents do, they’re not going to come between us,” Anya vowed.
“Never,” Belle agreed. “I just wish I knew why they did it.”
“Me too, Belle. Me too.”
“I’ve never hated you..."