Welcome to Beauty’s Beast, book 3 in the Black Trans Fairy Tales series. This novella is releasing one chapter/week on the blog ahead of publication. Three chapters will be available for free, after that, they’ll only be up for one week. If you miss a chapter or would like to support projects like this, join my Patreon.
The village sang with birdsong and early light cresting the distant mountains. Belle bathed in the golden glow as she walked into town, humming a song to herself. She skipped joyfully down the cobblestones, kicking her skirt out and spinning. The basket on her arm bounced on her hip.
As she had done every morning sine she was young, Belle had carefully shaved her face smooth with her father’s straight razor. Yesterday’s beard stubble rinsed into the basin along with that quiet discomfort that looked back at her in the mirror. After that, a bit of blush and some color on her eyes was all the transformation she needed. Last night, her father had tightened up her locs, pulling the loose hair by her scalp into neat and orderly rows with deft fingers and a bit of moisturizer. She could do it herself now—her hair fell down to her waist and the locs were easy to maintain—but she loved the time curled up on the floor in front of her father’s chair reading her latest book while his familiar fingers tugged and twisted.
She wore an old favorite dress, one of her late mother’s that Belle kept in good repair despite a general dislike for hemming and sewing. It was a sunny yellow, dyed and sun-faded over the years, with a line of white daisies embroidered by hand along the hem. Belle’s mother had stitched the flowers herself and wore the dress for her wedding. Belle wore it to remember her mother, a woman of soft smiles and gentle hands. Belle only had faded memories from infancy, before the consumption took her.
Belle carried a book in the basket, last night’s book in fact. By the time her father had finished her hair, Belle had been swept into the story, unable to put the book down until she reached the end in the dying candlelight far past bed time. One of her errands today included a stop at the bookshop.
She made this walk most mornings. Her father used to come into town for produce and woodworking supplies but he had set down his craft some years ago when his eyes and strength began to fail. Now Belle made the walk alone, supporting her father the way he had supported her for so long.
Belle’s hum rose into a song as she traveled, harmonizing with the birds. The trees—a loose mix of valley oak, white pine, blending into birch up the mountainside—littered the path with dappling shade. Birch were her favorite, with their stark white bark, dark eyes on the trunks, and flaming color as the seasons turned. She’d never been one to paint, but an entire mountainside of birch trees changing for autumn occasionally made her consider it.
A stream passed through the thin forest between Belle’s home and the village square. The bridge that arched across always gave her the best view of the town in the morning. From here, one hand on the wooden rail, she could see the tops of a dozen thatched roofs; bakery, inn, and shops snaking through the valley along the river edge. A thin line of smoke marked the blacksmith already at work. Beyond the village, the forest thinned even further, dissolving into a stretch of grassland that crept to the horizon.
Belle’s home sat in the hills behind her, among the birch and the deer. A sheer mountain range ringed the back of the valley, standing tall like sentinels against the rest of the world. Tucked into the cliffs, hiding in the birch, an old castle still stood against time. No one in the village knew its history, but Belle found the ruin a beautiful place to be alone with her books.
From the bridge, Belle saw Rionen pulling fresh water from the well in the center. The baker’s apprentice had powerful arms from kneading and lifting trays of just-baked rolls and she distributed water to a waiting line of villagers. The fresh smell of baking bread wafted by, colored with bright rosemary. Belle suddenly had a powerful craving for Rionen’s thin, crispy bread sticks. She always sprinkled a bit of salt on them and they snapped so delightfully in Belle’s teeth. Oh, and with a mug of tea she could sit out by the bookshop and start reading her next book. Yes, this was a grand plan.
Belle skipped into town. She waved at Rionen and Eden beside her, the candle maker. Isra at the bakery happily traded Belle a bouquet of fresh rosemary bread sticks and a mug of tea for the book Belle finished last night. The book would probably pass around the town six or seven times before finally being returned to the shop for a few pennies. Anything Belle enjoyed reading often became quite popular.
Several people stopped to wish her and her father well, which Belle accepted graciously. Her father couldn’t come into town frequently, but he was still well loved and Belle was warmed to see it every day.
The bookstore sat like a thin and gangly teenager between two much more stout buildings. It was two stories tall, but the upper half was an apartment for the shop keeper, while the entire bottom floor was dedicated to shelves of books.
Lukas waved her into the bookshop eagerly, his curling gray hair a halo around his dark face. He stood tall and thin like his shop, mostly bones and joints under an always-pressed vest and hat. He was as old as her father, maybe older. Belle had only ever known him as the bookshop owner, but he gave her the impression that a bigger story lived in his past. Some kind of adventure like the ones she read about in the books she loved.
“You enjoyed it?” He asked immediately, his hands clasped and his eyes glittering. “You just bought it yesterday!”
Belle laughed. “It was amazing, Lukas, you were right. I already gave it to Isra and told her to set aside several hours.” She put her hands on Lukas’ and squeezed. “Please tell me you have the next one. I don’t know what I’ll do if I have to wait for you to order it.”
Lukas pulled her deeper into the shop. “Don’t you worry, my dear. I know better than to tease you with the first book. I learned my lesson when you were young and nearly tore up the shop when I gave you an adventure without having the others.” He shot a sly look over his shoulder at you. “I had no idea how quickly you would devour it. I thought I had time to order the rest!”
Belle hid her face with one hand at the teasing. She considered herself a kind and patient person, a soft voice, like her mother. She wanted to be the person that other people could rely on for a steady hand and reasonable advice.
But she simply couldn’t contain herself when it came to new books. She became a monster. It was so embarrassing.
Thankfully she’d found a kindred spirit in Lukas, who was happy to provide her with all manner of exciting tales at her request.
He led her to his desk in the back room, a pristinely organized space of books, boxes, paperwork, and planning. He swiped two books off the corner of the desk and handed them to Belle with a smile. “Here you are. Books two and three. That’s the complete trilogy so you won’t have to wait to finish it.”
Belle inspected both books with excitement, delighting in their hand-painted covers and the neat hand-written script inside. She couldn’t wait to read. She set the books in her basket and paid Lukas his usual fee.
“When you’re done, I have something unusual for you to try next. It’s about a woman who tames a wild beast of the forest and together they overthrow a corrupt king. Very exciting.”
Belle covered her ears. “No don’t tell me more!” she said, laughing. “I’ve already spent my book budget for the week and you know it.”
“Next week, then,” Lukas promised. “But only if you finish those two.”
“That will not be a problem,” Belle said. “I saw my table is open out front. I’ll get started right away.”
Lukas waved as she left.
The bookshop’s bell jingled as she opened and closed the door and Belle paused in the morning sun to bask in the light for a moment. How could a day starting with bread sticks, tea, and a good book ever go wrong?
Lukas’ shop sat a good yard and a half deeper than the two buildings next to it, giving the space a bit of an alcove feel right at the entrance. Lukas had built a bench seat into the front wall under the bay window and padded it with a rainbow of pillows to sit on. A collection of tiny tables lined the bench, found here and there around town, repaired, and painted white so they seemed to match even though their designs varied. Overhead, a series of hanging planters cradled ivy vines that wound up their chains and spread across the face of the building in every direction.
Belle’s favorite table sat in the corner, where she could lean against the building on the right and prop her feet up on the bench without being in anyone’s way. She had a clear view of the well and its dwindling line as well as the main cobblestone road through town. And as the sun rose, she’d be shaded by the ivy overhead. The table in the corner was tiny, just enough for her hot tea and a napkin full of slim bread sticks. She nestled her basket under the table and got comfortable with her next book.
Belle was startled out of her book by a hideous and arrogant voice. She jumped in her corner, knocking the table beside her where her tea mug perched—thankfully empty. The sun had risen and as expected, the hanging ivy shaded her corner from the heat and light. Judging from the rumble in her stomach and the busy market, it was nearly noon.
The man bothering her stood just an inch outside of her personal space. He loomed like a vulture, one meaty hand leaning on the bookstore’s bay window.
Hero of the town: tall, strong, handsome. Slayer of monsters. Protector of damsels.
His blond hair fell in a wave over one shoulder and he wore a flashy red and leather outfit suitable for hunting in the woods. Judging by the shine on the brass buckles, had never been hunting through the woods. It was just a look. Belle suspected Gaston hadn’t killed a single one of the trophies he kept in his lodge. She’d been subject to his outrageous stories often enough. They never matched from one day to the next.
He could ride a horse and his sword was real, but the rest of him was a show for attention and Belle had never been interested.
She couldn’t help recoiling, trying to give herself a little more space. Gaston’s sinister smile widened.
He seemed to take her disgust as a challenge. Every time she managed to slip away he laughed as if she were playing hard-to-get and he enjoyed the game. The sound of his voice was a thousand spiders crawling up her back. She shivered.
Gaston laughed loudly, projecting into the street as if she’d said something witty. It was all an act, meant to get the attention of everyone passing by. He thought if he drew enough attention she wouldn’t be rude and turn her back on him. She would have to be polite. She couldn’t make a scene in public. Belle couldn’t stop the sneer from crawling over her lips. She tucked her book into her basket, collected her mug and swept the crumbs from the table for the birds.
“Belle, darling, you’re not happy to see me?” Gaston slid down onto the bench to sit far too close.
Belle stood up immediately, sliding the little table into Gaston’s way so she had room to flee.
She didn’t want to run from him, but she left the bookstore at a brisk walk, secretly pleased when she heard him cursing the table quietly and knocking it out of the way. Half a second head start. She’d worked with less.
Belle took a fork in the road toward the street market. At lunch it would be bustling with people, and with a little luck, Gaston would draw attention to himself without her help. Her heart surged in her chest and she took a deliberate deep breath. For all his posturing, Gaston had never manhandled her, and he was far more sensitive about his public appearance than she was. Belle just needed to keep a cool head and get into a crowd. She kept a tight hand on her basket.
The market swelled just ahead. The heavy scent of roast meat and grilling reached her first. Belle’s stomach growled, reminding her it was time to eat.
She’d pick something up after ditching Gaston.
“Belle! I have something to show you!” he called.
Belle dove into the crowd of the market. She didn’t want to see anything Gaston had to show off. And thanks to his shout, an entire group of women—and a few men—gasped and ran to meet him. In seconds he was mobbed by socialites in large dresses and the act he played wouldn’t allow him to brush them aside.
Belle circled the market with a secret smile. She hated the man, but his false face made it easy to use against him and slip away. As long as people were busy in town, she could always find a way out.
The group that surrounded Gaston fawned over his hunting leathers and demanded his presence at the next party and insisted on private dinner meetings. The men wanted to hear his hunting stories while the women competed to marry him. Why on earth Gaston insisted on harassing Belle when he had two dozen people at his feet ready to do his bidding, she’d never understand.
With the beast occupied, Belle tracked down a roasted skewer of vegetables and a fresh loaf of bread for lunch. That settled, she went through her mental list of errands. She had to pick up some groceries, return this tea mug, and slip out of town without Gaston spotting her.
Today wasn’t the first time he’d cornered her at the bookstore but he’d never tried to sit with her before. He was getting more aggressive and Belle had no idea what to do about it. Some days she wanted to punch him in his perfect nose, just to see his shocked face. She’d probably break her hand but it would be worth it.
Belle shook her head and focused. Gaston and his poor behavior didn’t get to live in her head. She had more important things to do.
It was time she got to it.