Chapter 106: The Problem With Strong Women
Strong women were going to be the death of him.
What was it that he saw in them? Why was he always so attracted to the woman who seemed to be defiant? The bad girl? Or, for that matter, why was whatever the hell Zelena was always so attracted to him?! It was like they were magnets! First Milah, cowardly as she was he knew that she’d been one of those strong women, perhaps one of the first he’d ever dealt with! His aunts, truly, had been the first women he’d had experience with but their strength was far different than Milah’s strength. They had used their strength for goodness, it had given them confidence and fortitude to stand against the villagers that hated them so. It had given them the courage to take in a little boy without a father and raise him as their own. Milah’s strength might have evolved into that one day with the right person. When he thought back to that first meeting he’d had with her when she’d been a girl and he a teenager, he’d seen a lot of his aunts in her then. Confidence and courage…his aunts were what Milah might have been if she hadn’t been such a selfish, drunken whore. Her strength had evolved, or possibly devolved, into destructive behavior that she’d used to oppress him and their son. Cora had been the same. She’d had a strength and determination about her that could have gone many ways. Surrounded by the right people Cora could have conquered the world and maybe even made it a better place, but as it was she’d been surrounded by wrong person after wrong person after wrong person, and he had no doubt it had made her what she was today: the Queen of Hearts; realms away from her family and home, and fond of tearing out hearts.
Belle was strong. He knew this. He’d known it all those years he’d watched her. But he hadn’t expected her strength to manifest in the way that it had here. She was a stubborn woman. It was the worst type of strength to have. Openly defiant, unwilling to learn her place…it was radiant sometimes. But he couldn’t understand what he wanted from it. There were times that he wanted to break her of it, but there were times he found himself hoping that she never lost it. Other times, like the incident downstairs, he was outright confused by what he wanted. He’d been pushing her for a response to the thief ever since he’d arrived. Now she’d finally given it, and in that moment he had felt good for finally coaxing it out of her, but why did it bother him in this moment? Why could he not stop thinking about it? Why did he sneer every time he thought of the way she’d had a response for every one of his, why did he shiver when he thought of her inability to back down, why did he have an urge to turn back time and do that moment over again? What would he change?
Nothing. He’d change nothing. And there was no use dwelling on it when there was work to be done.
Regina had called him. Another strong woman who, like Cora, could go either way. And he already knew which way fate was destined to take her.
The sun would be going down soon at his castle, which meant it would be well past dark there. He could have appeared before her in an instant but he decided to take himself upstairs to his room and change clothes first, dawning the scaly jacket he was so fond of wearing to make deals these days. As he changed, he summoned his crystal ball from his workspace. It was, perhaps, time to make that deal with Regina. But he didn’t walk into potential deals without the necessary knowledge to complete them.
“Show me what I need to know,” he ordered, changing out his shirt.
What he needed to know was apparently a series of images. Regina had joined the hunt for Snow White, just as she’d sworn she would, that was no surprise to him. What was surprising to him was the violence. He watched Regina, but he hadn’t been keeping a close enough eye on her. In his ball, he saw homes set to fire by her faceless guards while she watched in the distance. He saw men taken away from their families as women and children cried in the distance. He saw Regina search home after home after home, barns, shops, taverns, nothing was exempt from her gaze when it came to Snow White. He saw death at her hands. An entire town murdered at her orders. And all along he could see in the ball what she could not…Snow White in the forest, running to safety yet again.
He had mixed feelings. He needed that death and destruction, he knew that. He needed her to become the Evil Queen the Seer told him she was bound to become in order to enact his curse. But so much death and destruction…he hadn’t been prepared for that. Her obsession was becoming unquenchable. He knew what had to be done to stop it. Either bring about Snow White’s death, change the future, and cut himself off from Bae forever. Or stir the future forward.
Yes, now was the time to bring about that deal.
He waited for her in her room, a place he hadn’t been since before the King had died. The genie was here, somewhere, there was no doubt about that. He knew that the creature had been cursed inside of a mirror, how he haunted Regina and helped her, it was one of the reasons that he continued to keep the mirror that connected him to her covered all the time now. Before he’d always known Regina couldn’t be there all the time to watch him, now she had a little spy built-in for her. Potentially. Which was why he began to look about for the creature. If he could see him, study him for himself, he might be able to make a potion that could shut him out of his castle while still keeping the mirror connection intact.
But where was he?! The crystal ball by her couch seemed like a good place to start, after all his crystal was one of the most powerful objects he’d ever claimed. Not as powerful as a fairy wand, of course, but certainly powerful enough.
And yet Regina’s was useless. The second he sat down and picked it up, he could tell that there was no magic within it. It was simply ordinary decoration, he didn’t need daylight to see that.
“Where else could you be…” he growled looking around.
“Rumpelstiltskin!” he heard Regina cry out as she came striding into her dressing room, clearly upset that he’d ignored her call for so long.
“Well, it seems you’ve taken to power quite well,” he muttered from his spot on the couch. “Gives your cheeks a nice rosy color.”
“I don’t understand them!” she yelled, moving closer. “I offer these peasants a fortune, and they still protect Snow White! Why are they loyal to her and not me? I am their Queen!”
He nodded and set the ball aside so he could face her, and also sweep the room for other hiding places. “You did just slaughter an entire village. Maybe that’s why they call you the ‘Evil Queen’!” he joked, thinking back to the Seer’s name for her. Maybe it was time she embraced that title. It would certainly move things forward where he was concerned.
“I am not evil,” she sneered. He nodded, but what he really wanted to do was roll his eyes as he walked away from her. He’d expected her to say something like that, of course, the worst of the worst always did. It was the one thing that still brought him hope. He was a monster, but he knew he was. Regina was becoming an evil wretch and still in denial. It was why she’d taken more offense to being called “evil” just now, instead of defending her actions against the towns she’d destroyed. “They call me that because of her! She’s the evil one!”
Oh, so they were already calling her the Evil Queen! What a joyous occasion! The Seer had been right again, and he couldn’t wait to move forward and see her come face to face with the Swan!
“They’re her people, dearie!” he cried over his shoulder as he moved away. Her vanity mirror-where better to keep a genie? “You’re gonna have to be content with the fear. They’ll never love you.”
“Yes, they will,” she insisted almost dreamily. He moved to her vanity but saw nothing in that mirror, either. Instead, he leaned over her dressing table to smell the fresh flowers there that were cut so that she wouldn’t guess that he was searching for her mirror friend. Flowers would look lovely in the foyer. Perhaps he could take some, and that might give his little maid an idea…not to mention something to do. He’d hate to see what idle hands on her would do when there wasn’t a prisoner he needed her to interrogate. “When she is gone, when Snow is dead, then they will see my kindness.”
“Through the charred remains of their homes. I’m sure that will be perfectly clear,” he stated, moving about again. Where else could the creature be? If he could just sense his energy, understand how it worked, he might be able to come up with something!
“Well, in time, it will be. Her death will allow it. And I’m going to find her. Apparently, I have to do it myself.”
He picked up a small handheld mirror that she kept on her vanity and sat in the chair with it. A mirror by a mirror, how odd unless one of them revealed a genie. Nothing! Though he could feel the same kind of magic he felt at the vanity, he saw nothing. He tapped it a few times as she spoke, but no genie appeared.
“Well, in that outfit, finding her should be easy,” he joked, tapping again. Perhaps genie magic would always baffle him. It wasn’t like him to give up, but he had a prisoner to question, and the blanket over the mirror would keep the magical man’s prying eyes out of his home. He had to have his priorities.
“Teach me my mother’s shape-shifting spell!” Regina gasped, suddenly excited. “Allow me to hide.”
He resisted his urge to laugh, one had to remain calm and in control when making a deal, after all. Besides, while he was desperate to make the deal, it had to be for the right thing. He wanted it done now, and learning that spell was not something that could happen overnight. Regina needed something to work a bit quicker than the months it would take. Or rather, someone.
“It took your mother months to learn that. You? Well, in a week, you’ll be able to, uh, change your hair? Highlights? Maybe.”
Now it was Regina who angrily rolled her eyes and turned away from him, mad and upset…until the thought he wanted finally came to her, and she spun herself around.
“If I can’t do the spell, you can!” she realized, coming closer. “Put it on me!”
Now…there was a request he would work a deal with.
“If I do, you won’t control it,” he warned, setting the mirror aside and rising once more. He’d have to investigate the genie later. “And you won’t have any magic while the spell is working.”
“I won’t need magic,” she insisted in a low and crazed tone. “Just as long as I can get close enough to snap her neck with my bare hands.” Her jaw was set, her teeth were clenched, and in her eyes he saw the kind of blackness he needed for her to cast his curse. It was a risk, he supposed, letting her go out there to hunt the Princess that he needed alive. But the Seer hadn’t been wrong yet. If this was to be, he had to assume that there was a lesson to be learned by Regina, a deal to be made for him, and life to give to Snow White and her future False Prince.
“I can see you’re determined. And when the deed is done, call upon me,” he instructed as she stood a distance away and prepared herself. “Only I can return you to your regal self.”
“Hold on!” she burst out suddenly as he began to pull magic into him. He stopped and looked her over as her own eyes squinted suspiciously at him. “What’s the price?”
“Boring matter of state,” he smiled. “I need you to cut off all trade with King George’s realm.”
“King George? Why?”
“I need him to be bankrupt! What’s it to you?!”
“Fine. Fine!” she cried, ending their spat. Why she suddenly cared about his affairs was beyond him. He was pleased to see her finally shaking her body in preparation, as if she were about to run a race instead of just have a spell placed on her. His business was his business. “Just do it. Time is of the essence.”
He summoned his magic back into him again and began to pull an image into his head, an image of opposites. Instead of smooth well-done hair, he imagined the hair of a peasant, uncombed and unkempt. Instead of tall, he pictured short. He imagined weathered hands and skin in place of younger skin that had never worked a day in their life. He changed the color of her eyes, the shape of her nose, the subtly of her smile, even altered those cheekbones of hers. The final touch was what she wore. The regal clothes of a queen were too much for what he was trying to accomplish. Rags. He summoned them forth. Clothes made from poor quality wool that had been spun by a talentless hack, weaved together by someone just desperate to make copper. Then he released the image along with his magic. And when the smoke cleared, the woman he’d created in his mind’s eye stood before him; rags and all. He let out a laugh. That had been even better than he imaged!
Regina, quite obviously, disagreed. Her smile instantly fell.
“I don’t feel any different…” she looked herself up and down but immediately gravitated to what she was wearing. Naturally. He doubted she’d ever worn anything as poor as this in her entire spoiled life. Her dear mother would have a heart attack at the very thought. “Other than these ghastly rags…”
He wanted to jump up and down and clap his hands with happiness. “Ghastly rags.” That was exactly what he’d been aiming for! He pointed toward her genieless vanity and escorted her to where she could see herself.
“This is what the world will see.” Regina gasped as she looked in the mirror and saw the image he’d conjured in his head for her.
“Excellent!” she smiled turning this way and that. “I’m about as regal as a potato…”
If only she knew his origins, if only she’d seen her own mother once upon a time, she might look down a little less at the peasants around her. Which reminded him…
“Careful, dearie,” he warned, biting his tongue. “A Queen strutting amongst peasants might not like what she hears.”
Powerful as she was, she was also sheltered. Cora had seen to that and now he’d seen to it in her later years. She’d never not lived in a palace, and while the simple girl who’d wanted so desperately to run away a decade ago would have probably done well on her own, now Regina was a different person than she’d been. Now she was a queen, one who knew magic and had a fire in her heart for death. He knew she wasn’t prepared for what awaited her out there. In the end, he hoped he could use it to his advantage.
“Won’t matter,” she laughed, wrapping a thin shawl around her. “When I’m done, they’ll be singing my praises over her smoldering, villainous remains.”
“If you say so,” he muttered over her shoulder and into her ear. “Now…our deal…” he summoned into his hand a perfectly drafted royal decree, one that would bring an immediate halt to all trade with King George’s land and force him to look elsewhere for allies, like King Midas’ Kingdom perhaps where he knew there was so much more to trade than goods.
“Yes, yes,” she took a quill that he offered and signed her name to it, not bothering to question how he’d already made sure her wax seal was on it perfectly. “I’ll send it along-”
“Oh, don’t worry about such things!” he scoffed, rolling it up and sending it to Theseus’ Palace for Pirithous to find. “I’ve a little bird who can do the pesky paperwork for us.”
“Fortunately, so do I…”
Ah yes…her black bird messengers…that annoying little habit she’d picked up from Maleficent. He watched as she waved her hand, probably attempting to summon one, but he smiled when he felt no flare of magic and she appeared confused. Had she forgotten already? This was going to be quite an interesting adventure for her.
“Don’t forget, dearie! No magic!” he reminded her. “I’ll take care of the paperwork. You just worry about your hunt…good luck!”