Lona and Palla exited the door to the Administrator’s Office. The Consort looked at her daughter’s anxious face and winked. Belle visibly relaxed and stood, placing her tiny hand into her large one.
“Let’s go home munchkin.”
Belle remained silent during the ride home. Lona appreciated it, mentally rehearsing the lecture she would have to deliver once they got to the Residence. Once home, Lona stepped out from the vehicle and motioned her daughter to follow her, leading her to one of the private gardens.
Belle looked up at Lonnie as she sat down on a stone bench. She shuffled nervously until Lonnie smiled and urged her to climb onto her lap. Belle settled herself into her warm embrace and sighed.
"I’m not mad at you honey. We just need to talk a bit, okay?"
Belle nodded and nuzzled closer, still a little upset over the fight.
"School is very different, isn’t it? A bunch of new people, different rules, lots of things to remember." The little girl nodded and sniffled.
"I guess your mother and I forgot how different things are away from home. You know there are lots of people like that girl you fought with out there. Families expect their daughters to be tough, never to cry, and to keep their family honor in any way they can. Your mother and I don’t say that, do we?" Lona asked, not expecting an answer.
"On my world, everyone is supposed to be nice and follow the rules. It’s hard to blend those two ideas Belle. I know you’re young and it may be hard to understand, but you’re a smart kid. Because I’m different, you are too. I’m a LOT stronger than everyone else is. I could beat anyone I wanted, but I don’t. Do you know why honey?"
Belle looked into her eyes and waited for the answer. Lonnie grinned and pushed a dark lock from Belle’s face. “Because you never, ever, pick on people weaker than you for fun. That girl at school…she was a bully. She picked on you because you’re smaller and younger. Some people like pushing others around or to tease them, call them names. It’s not a nice thing to do. Now, I know you didn’t mean to hurt her but you have to be very, very careful from now on in. Think about how strong you are. I know you don’t want to be like that girl at school and have all the kids scared of you. You want real friends there, right?" Belle nodded.
“So, you’ll be nice to the other kids that are nice to you. If a kid isn’t nice to you, ignore them, okay? You have to be a good role model, especially for your little sister."
“What if that girl tries to hit me again?" Belle asked.
“Well, what do you think?" Lona asked, hoping her daughter would think it out. Belle’s little face scrunched in thought.
"I don’t know. I’m stronger so I’d be able to beat her up, but you say not to."
“Yes, but sometimes you have to fight, to protect yourself or someone weaker. If someone hit Brittany, you’d want to protect her, right?" Belle nodded. "That’s what good people do. They protect people who need it and don’t go looking for a fight. Should we make a list?" Lona often did this with her daughter, who liked things done in an orderly manner. She must have gotten it from Tashalia.
“Okay, rule number one. Don’t pick on people—be nice and polite. Two: talk to an adult if someone is being a bully. Three: fight only if you have to but be very careful not to hurt them too much. Does that sound like a good list Belle?"
“Yes Lonnie. Thank you!" Belle snuggled closer, feeling better. Lona kissed her cheek and picked her up playfully, making snorting noises against her neck. Belle squealed and laughed.
* * * * *
Tashalia gazed at her sleeping family. Somehow, her children managed to join her mate in a nap in their parents’ bed rather than their own. Each child was wrapped in a powerful arm and held against her sturdy body. The Queen understood her mate’s allowing Belle to join her. After all, she had a rough first day at school. Tashalia shook her head. No, of course Brittany would be there also.
Lona refused to play favorites with her children. It was a painful lesson from her own childhood, when she had been the odd one out. Her father had preferred one child, her mother another, leaving Lona feeling neglected and unloved. She and her mate had spoken one day, shortly after their youngest child’s birth. Lona told her she didn’t want their children feeling resentment over the other. Favoritism would not exist. To this day, Tashalia didn’t know if Lona had a favorite between their two daughters. Each was treated equally with affection and love.
Shaking her head indulgently at Lona’s soft heart, she sat at her desk and quietly read reports while they slept. Occasionally, she would glance at them, feeling that jolt of awe that sometimes struck her at the oddest moments. Her life had gone from dismal loneliness to becoming the luckiest woman on C’hela. Suddenly feeling the need to be with them and savor her happiness, she crawled into bed with them and closed her eyes blissfully.
* * * * *
Belle walked into the building of her new school with excitement and dread. Some faces she recognized from her old private school but most were strangers to her. Many stared, recognizing her from the newspapers and magazines. They whispered excitedly, some nervously. One bold girl looked down at her with a challenging smirk, adjusting the blade at her hip.
Mindful of her role as the next queen, Belle returned her smirk and kept going, resuming her bored expression. It wouldn’t do to allow anyone to see her afraid. She was glad she had memorized her schedule and the floor plan to the building. It allowed her to go directly to her first class without having to peer at a piece of paper and wander around in confusion like many of the others around her. Keeping her head up proudly and walking confidently, she made her way to the room and entered. A quick glance told her few had arrived yet and she had the opportunity to find a seat she liked.
Finding a seat near to the cooling vent, she sat down gratefully. Like her mother, Lonnie, heat bothered her. Most C’helans preferred the sunny warm window seats but not her. Give her a cold breeze and she was happy. During the summer break, Belle had taken (to the horror of residential staff) a part-time job in a local food preservation plant. Discovering her preference for cooler temperatures, her supervisor had her work in the packing area, loading frozen foods into containers. The work had been boring and tiring, but by the Holy One, she had been cool! That alone had been enough to make up for the small pittance she had been paid.
Taking a pencil from her pouch, she leaned back into a relaxed pose and began doodling on her notebook, one long leg stretched out. Image was everything. Look bored, confident, and relaxed. Watching her mother rein over the years proved that to be the secret to appearing self-assured. Adding the occasional amused quirks of the lips, never raising your voice or to lose your temper were also good tools.
"Do you mind if I sit here?" Belle looked up, seeing a dark skinned girl already sitting in the seat next to her. Belle’s practiced eyes saw the sly look of someone out to use her. She locked eyes with her and the girl suddenly decided a seat elsewhere was desired. She slinked away.
“Good call. She likes to cheat and never pays her debts," an amused voice chuckled behind her. Belle turned around in her chair to look at the person who spoke. A girl her own age with shiny black hair and sparkling hazel eyes smiled warmly.
"Hello, I’m Grasen, from the House of Krata" she added. Belle returned the smile and held out her arm in greeting. Grasen looked startled.
"Don’t worry, it’s allowed. I’m not queen yet," she teased mildly. The girl let out a nervous chuckle and tentatively held out her arm, allowing Belle to grasp her wrist in greeting, positive the future queen could feel her excited pulse. Withdrawing her hand, the consort’s daughter waved at the now empty seat to her side, silently inviting Grasen to sit there. Relocating, she leaned closer to Belle.
"I went to school with a lot of these girls. Most are alright but some you need to watch out for," she whispered. "The girl at the front, red nayst, likes to talk big then have her buddies do the dirty work. The girl by the window, third seat back, has this tendency to be a rough date. No one would go near her at our old school. Girls from other schools will find out the hard way. And…" nodding with her chin towards the back, "last but not least is Tauch. She should have been sent to prison last year but her family has too many connections. Knifed a girl in the back over an insult."
“Great homeroom class," Belle deadpanned. "Thanks for the heads up though Grasen," she added with a smile. Her new acquaintance was cute and seemed fairly open and friendly. She had a feeling they’d be friends.
“Could I ask a personal question Mistress Belle?"
“Just Belle, and sure, go ahead and ask," hoping it wasn’t an embarrassing one.
“Do you really eat red meat?"
Belle barely managed to contain her burst of laughter. "Join me at lunch and find out," she said with a naughty wink.
* * * *
“By the Holy One! Belle, that’s disgusting!" Grasen hissed, watching the consort’s daughter slather spicy sauce on a slab of cooked meat before flipping a piece of bread over it.
Laughing, Belle took a bite of her sandwich and chewed her food in obvious enjoyment, watching her new friend squirm and look everywhere but at her food. Belle smirked.
“You are evil Mistress Belle, evil!" The dark-haired girl complained, and gave her a shove. The moment she did it, her eyes grew wide. She was doomed! She had just shoved the next queen! "My apologies! I didn’t mean—“
Belle laughed. "Don’t worry about it." Grasen’s stricken look didn’t lessen. She was truly upset by her own actions. "Hey, listen to me carefully. Relax. Take a deep breath. No one is going to take you out to the public square and whip you. I don’t know about you, but I have hopes of our becoming friends—and friends are allowed certain liberties, such as telling me when I’m an idiot or treating me like everyone else—honest. So, relax. Forget about who my parents are and think of me as just another student here, alright?"
"But nothing. I want friends; not simpering leeches who tremble when I look their way. Besides, with my wicked sense of humor, you’ll feel like pushing me off a pier or something equivalent to it and I’ll probably deserve it. You should have seen what Lonnie did to mother last week. She programmed her computer so it makes burping noises every time she hits the enter key. Mother can’t find the program line that causes it and it’s driving her nuts. She can’t even turn off the sound because it’s disabled. Mom is promising to string Lonnie up by her toes if she doesn’t fix it."
Grasen looked at her in shock for several seconds then laughed. "I take it that is fair warning that you’re a prankster as well?"
Belle gave her best, ‘Who, little innocent me?’ look and failed miserably. But it worked, the classmate relaxed and lost the terrified expression of earlier.
Several weeks passed, and Belle felt comfortable enough with Grasen to invite her to visit the Residence. Stunned, but pleased, Grasen accepted, promising to meet her after the last class ended. They met outside the front doors. Belle was waiting for her, standing next to a towering woman of massive size and power.
"Hey Grasen, this is Palla. She’s in charge of Security at the Residence. Palla, this is Grasen of the House of Krata."
"A pleasure Mistress Grasen. The car is this way," she motioned gracefully. The student followed meekly, wondering if Palla used tree trunks for toothpicks because she was so huge.
"She’s a sweetie, don’t let her appearances fool you," Belle whispered.
"I heard that Brat," Palla said in a stage whisper. Her charge snickered and gave her newest friend a gentle nudge with her elbow. They climbed into the back of the luxury car and buckled in. The trip was short and Grasen looked up at awe at the Residence as they passed through the gates. She had never been to open court or visited the estate in her life.
"Wait until you see the private areas."
Belle pulled at her shirt, feeling the heat of the late summer. "I need to change. It’s too hot. Come to my room while I change then I’ll give you a tour of the place if you want," Belle offered. Grasen nodded and looked around as they entered the private entrance. A young girl rushed around the corner and bumped into Belle.
"Oops, sorry Belle, I’m late for practice." Grasen watched the girl stretch up quickly and plant a kiss on her friend’s cheek before rushing out the door. Belle noticed her wondering look. Her sister hadn’t been photographed in several years.
"Brittany, my sister," she explained.
"Oh, okay. She seemed rather…affectionate." Grasen felt a bit foolish. She had felt a stab of jealousy at the stranger’s familiarity with Belle.
Belle was puzzled over the comment but didn’t say anything. She led the way to the family wing, nodding warmly at the guards along the way. They greeted her with smiles as they passed. Belle’s classmate begun wondering if she had entered an odd dream state. People behaved in a manner she wasn’t accustomed to.
Entering Belle’s suite, an older servant ruffled Belle’s light brown hair and reminded her dinner would be ready soon before leaving the room.
"I really need to cool off, just a moment while I get out of these clothes." Belle disappeared through another door. Grasen sat down on a comfortable sofa and waited a short time. Within minutes, Belle returned, wearing just a nayst and a pair of soft sandals on her feet. Just then, Grasen realized her friend never wore casual clothing at school. The future queen always was fully clothed in spite of her complaints of the heat.
A shame really, since Belle was wonderfully proportioned and had the strong physique of an athlete. Realizing where her thoughts were heading, Grasen shook her head and mentally chastised herself for her lustful ideas.
"Hungry? I know I am," Belle commented.
"We’re eating with your family?" she asked nervously.
"Yes, but don’t worry, they won’t bite. It’s informal, really. Actually, I think Lonnie is cooking tonight. Her greenhouse is overflowing this season and she felt like fixing dinner tonight to use some of it up."
"The Consort is cooking?" Grasen asked in surprise. She didn’t know of one single noblewoman who knew how to fix a meal. That was what servants or men were for.
"Sure. She loves to cook, grow her own vegetables, tinkers with cars, helps in the gardens when they need a strong back, and even does her own driving," Belle informed her while trying her best not to laugh. She knew her family was eccentric and was enjoying seeing the stunned looks on her friend’s face.
"Well, she’s very…talented, isn’t she?"
"Yes, and she even writes poetry for mom. She’s very gifted. She’s had several books published as well."
"She has?" her friend asked, almost reeling with the fact. "But…I haven’t seen any books with her name on them."
"Of course not. She uses a different name and all the money goes to charities. It’s a secret so you can’t tell," Belle told her seriously.
"What name does she use?"
"By the Holy One! I’ve read those, more than once! I loved them all. I have the whole collection. I think I’m going to pass out when I meet her."
"Grasen! Don’t you dare! It’s supposed to be a secret. But—if you are good, I bet I can talk her into letting you read part of the one she’s working on now. She likes feedback and most people don’t have the language skills to judge well. You have high grades in languages and she’d love to share it."
Belle managed to get her friend to the dining room but wondered if she’d make it through the evening without being overwhelmed. Maybe she should have introduced her gradually into her family life so she’s have time to get used to all the quirky natures of everyone. Oh well, it was too late now.
Grasen entered the room with more than a little nervousness. Servants came and went, bringing bowls and covered dishes to the table. The Queen was sitting alone at the table, reading some papers.
"Belle! Hi little one," she greeted her daughter with a huge smile. Belle kissed her cheek and turned to introduce her friend. Tashalia smiled and invited Grasen to join her at the table. Bowing respectfully, she took a chair to her left and sat down.
“Lona should be just about finished. You know her, she has to prepare enough for an entire city when she cooks."
Belle chuckled. "Between she and I, we eat like an army. There won’t be leftovers for long if she’s fixing Italian tonight." Noticing her friend’s puzzled look, she explained that it was a region from Lonnie’s home world. "The food is great, I promise. It may taste unusual but it won’t hurt you. The labs tested her native plants and found nothing harmful in them. And no, there’s no red meat tonight—I think." Belle sent a questioning look towards her mother, who shook her head no. "It’s mostly vegetables, breads, sauces, and pastas. I promise. Hmm, mother, Grasen looks nervous," she said, embarrassing her friend to a bright blush. "Perhaps you should bite her and get it over with so she’ll relax."
"Belle! Don’t listen to my devil daughter Mistress Grasen, I don’t bite. Well, except for Lona, when she wants me to," Tashalia said with a naughty smile. The years hadn’t lessened their passions in the least.
Seeing the gleam in her eyes, Grasen turned a deeper red but did relax. Belle’s mother was the Ruler of C’helan but she was also a real person with a wicked sense of humor of her own. The student realized she had been allowed a glimpse into their lives and felt warmth spread inside at their willingness to accept her. She knew that very few outside the Residence saw this side of them.
"Everyone hungry? Dinner is ready!" a booming voice announced from the doorway. "Hey, we have a visitor. Who’s your friend Belle?" Lona asked as she set down a large steaming platter. She kissed her daughter’s hair and sat down. Belle made the introductions and mentioned that she promised to ask if Grasen could get a sneak peek at her next story.
A look passed between Tashalia and Lona. If Belle had told Grasen of her writing then she must trust the young woman. That was good enough for them. They now had a new family member, whether she knew it or not.
To be continued...