Adam's patience had never been so strongly tested as it was during the Marquis' stay, despite Belle's helpful presence. The Comte was a cheery, down to earth man who reminded Adam strongly of Belle's father, but the Marquis was disagreeable enough to overshadow any good the Comte's presence might have provided. At Gustave's suggestion, Adam took his guests on a tour of the castle, making sure to show them several portraits of Adam's family that now hung along some of the walls.
These portraits had been recently taken from storage where the servants had hid them; Adam had ordered them destroyed shortly after his father left, but now Adam was glad to find the servants had disobeyed him in this. Though it was odd to see these portraits, feeling rather like ghosts from his past, it was good to see his sister and mother's faces once again. It was also necessary for these portraits to exist to banish any doubts the Marquis and Comte might still have about Adam's claim to be who he was.
One portrait in particular Adam found in the north hall pulled at Adam's heart in a way he had not experienced since he was a boy. The portrait was of his entire family: father, mother, sister, and himself. Adam could remember posing for it; he was four at the time and whined about how his stiff outfit itched his neck. But the little boy in the silly suit could not be anyone but Adam, which would confirm Adam's claim even to the disagreeable Marquis.
It was odd to see himself as a child, ignorant to what was waiting for him. This boy had no idea that the mother and sister he stood beside would soon be dead, that the father who stood stiffly to his other side would abandon him, and that he would fall victim to an enchantment that would haunt his dreams even after it was broken.
Adam looked away from this ignorant, selfish boy, ignoring altogether his dark-haired, stern father who stood beside the boy, and found himself lingering instead on the faces of his mother and sister.
His sister, who was two years old at the time the portrait was done, had also been fussing about her own itchy outfit and Adam smiled remembering how she would follow him around, mimicking him almost constantly. He had hated it at the time, but now Adam only found the memory endearing. She looked content enough in the painting, smiling sweetly from her place in her mother's lap, wearing a pale pink, almost white dress, her strawberry blond curls framing her face. His mother's hands were wrapped around his sister's stomach, holding the girl in place.
His mother smiled down at Adam as he gazed at the painting. Though frozen in time by the artist who painted it, her smile was comforting to Adam and he found himself drawing forward memories of her embrace, her voice, and the sweet smile that would calm him when he was at his worst.
"You look so much like your father, Your Highness," the Comte remarked, breaking into Adam's thoughts. "But, if I may say, you have your mother's soul."
"Thank you," Adam replied, bowing his head slightly at the heartwarming compliment. "No one could have such a kind heart as her, though."
"I think Lady Belle could match her," the Comte said with a smile and Adam beamed.
"Ah yes, the farm girl," the Marquis cut in. "Are you sure such a match is suitable, Your Highness? Sweet as she is?" Adam's smile immediately dropped and he restrained several harsh words he wouldn't have hesitated speaking, or yelling, when he was still the Beast.
"Lady Belle had shown herself equal, if not more so, to any noble lady I have encountered," Gustave put in before Adam could say a word. "She is the better of any noble woman I could possibly think of to wed our Prince."
Adam was aware that Gustave had just insulted the Marquis' daughter, since Adam would very likely have had to marry Nicole had his life taken a different turn. Judging by the rather purple hue the Marquis was turning, he was well aware of it himself.
"Now see here. . ." the Marquis huffed. But before he could get much further, the Comte stepped in.
"I'm getting quite hungry," he said quickly. "Perhaps we should collect the ladies and fine some luncheon?"
"Good idea," Adam said with a grateful nod.
"It's about that time," Gustave agreed. "I daresay we'll insult poor Cogsworth if we do not appear soon." Though the Marquis' face was still a rather vivid shade of red, the idea of food seemed to calm him enough to say nothing more about the subject.
"Lumiere," Adam asked as they approached the dining room. "Will you find Belle and Lady Nicole and bring them here to eat?"
"At once, Master. I am sure Belle would welcome a break from entertaining Lady Nicole," Lumiere added in an undertone and Adam chuckled, certain that Nicole was trying even Belle's patience by now.
Adam had taken the Comte and the Marquis on a tour of the castle, but Nicole found the idea of wandering the halls exhausting and boring. Instead, she insisted on spending the morning with Belle. Belle, who personally was very interested in seeing how the guests would react to Adam on the tour, dreaded spending time alone with Nicole, certain the girl had some sort of agenda.
"This is lovely," Nicole said as the men started on their way. "Just us girls."
"Perhaps I could show you the library," Belle suggested, wanting to be somewhere familiar to give her strength on what would be an undoubtedly trying day.
"Only if you wish to bore me," Nicole sneered with clear disgust.
"Don't you like to read?" Belle asked innocently, already knowing the answer.
"Don't tell me you do?"
"Of course. We need to keep our minds sharp if we are to keep up with what our fathers and future husbands do, don't you think? How else are we to do so but read and learn from books?" Belle said, playing to an aspect of reading that Nicole might possibly relate to.
"Ladies have quite enough to do by being a good hostess, planning and organizing parties, and giving a good impression to people important to our fathers and future husbands," Nicole countered. Belle could do nothing but stare at the girl in shock. This girl desired nothing more than to be a smiling doll who serves tea. For women to take such a passive role in life was what people like Gaston had wanted, something Belle could never accept. Planning a party was exhausting, certainly, and Belle knew well the difficulties that came with it, but there was so much more to life than that.
"Well, what would you like to do, then?" Belle asked, knowing from her exhaustive experiences with Gaston that nothing she said would change this girl's mind.
"I find embroidery quite relaxing, though I'm sure you haven't much practice in such delicate work," Nicole replied with a sickly sweet smile and Belle pursed her lips. No, she hadn't much experience with sitting and sewing mindlessly for hours only to have the resulting flower be put on a pillow that's going to be sat on anyway. But she was not about to admit that to this girl, so she merely summoned Estelle and asked her to fetch them embroidery materials.
"I—really?" Estelle asked in surprise.
"You were just given an order, I believe," Nicole said. "That usually requires an action of your part."
Belle looked an apology at Estelle, but she wasn't sure she noticed it. "Yes, my lady," Estelle said in an uncharacteristically demure way and hurried away.
"That was rude," Belle remarked angrily.
"She's only a servant," Nicole dismissed.
"She's a person who deserves respect," Belle retaliated, knowing it was useless to argue but unable to help herself.
"My poor dear, you're quite unaware of how it all works, aren't you?" Nicole said, patting Belle's hand with a look of pity on her face. "Come, we'll go to the parlor where we can talk and sew more comfortably." Belle waved her hand, motioning silently for Nicole to go first, not trusting herself to speak.
Hours later, Belle's mood had not improved. Nicole had taken it upon herself to teach Belle the 'fine art' of embroidery, during which Nicole insisted on also talking of the fashions of the court, and servants and nobles she disliked. Fortunately, Nicole talked far too much to allow Belle to add more than occasional nods or words of agreement, allowing her mind to wander to other, more interesting things. That is, until Nicole's endless prattle turned to Adam.
"It's lucky such a high born noble is so handsome. Most of them are rather unfortunate-looking or disgustingly old," was one of the phrases that caught Belle's attention between her daydreams.
"Yes, lucky," Belle muttered when Nicole paused, clearly expecting a response.
"But of course you realize you won't be burdened with all this courtly nonsense for long," Nicole added, barely glancing up from her sewing.
"Excuse me?" Belle said, lowering her barely touched embroidery to stare at Nicole in disbelief.
"Well, sooner or later Adam will realize that marrying me would be a much smarter choice for everyone involved. It's what will be expected, you understand." Belle fought to keep her patience but could not stop her hands from trembling with fury.
"You do realize Adam and I are engaged," she replied, pleased with how even she was able to keep her voice.
"But not married. Nothing is final until the vows."
Belle was saved from answering as Lumiere entered the room. "Excuse me. Prince Adam has sent me to tell you they are waiting in the dining room for you to join them for luncheon."
"Thank you, Lumiere," Belle sighed and did her best not to run from the room.
"Enjoying yourself?" Lumiere muttered to her as he escorted them to the dining room. She, Adam, and servants all had to be on their best show while the nobles were visiting the castle, the better to help them believe Adam's story. But Belle found many of the customs stuffy and pointless, such as having to be escorted nearly everywhere or being addressed as if she were a stranger to these kind people. Lumiere, at least, was good enough to put on a show for their guests while still managing to keep the more familiar, comfortable interaction with her without the others noticing.
"Does it show?" she replied and met Lumiere's sympathetic gaze.
"Do not worry, ma cherie. They will not be here forever." Belle smiled at Lumiere's words, but found little comfort in them.
As they entered the dining room, the men stood and Belle met Adam's eyes. It was clear by his expression that Adam was having just as difficult a day as she was. All she could do was give him a sympathetic look, however, and do her best to get through the meal. By some stroke of luck, the Marquis and Nicole both wished to rest after eating (which Belle found rather silly) but it allowed Adam and Belle the chance to breathe.
"I think we're the ones who deserve a rest after that," the Comte said after the Marquis and his daughter left for their rooms. Belle was surprised to hear the Comte voice the exact sentiment she was thinking herself and a relieved giggle escaped her.
"You too?" Adam asked.
"If the Marquis is half the handful Nicole is, I feel very sorry for you both," Belle replied, knowing she shouldn't say such things but unable to help herself.
"I didn't have much time to warn you about them," Gustave said apologetically.
"I'm glad you're here at least, monsieur," Belle said and smiled at the Comte. "It's good to have a friendly face to countermand the others."
"Thank you, my lady. I'm glad I can be of some service to you."
"He tried to come to your defense earlier. Both he and my uncle did," Adam put in and Belle blushed with pleasure.
"Thank you, monsieur. . .Comte, I mean," she said awkwardly, aware that there was some sort of title she would be expected to call him but unsure of what it was.
"Henry suits me well enough, my lady," the Comte said, coming to her rescue.
"Only if you call me Belle," she returned happily.
"Not in front of the Marquis, though. He has a hard enough time with you already without finding you're calling your noble tenants by their given names," the Comte said with a kind smile. Belle was so glad there was at least one kind-hearted soul amongst the nobility she was about to be thrust into as Adam's wife.
"Now, if you'll allow me, I'd like to take a walk around your grounds. They are quite beautiful." Adam nodded and the Comte—Henry—made his way outside.
"What a kind man," Belle said as he disappeared behind the corner.
"I think I'll go work on some letters that need my attention," Gustave said. "You two should take this time and collect yourselves. I don't think the Marquis and Nicole will get any more agreeable this evening." He quickly disappeared around the same corner the Comte had vanished behind and Belle was at last left with Adam.
"The library?" he asked with what seemed like a hopeful smile.
"The library," she confirmed and together they went to escape for a few hours into a world where the Marquis and his daughter did not exist.