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.
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Lukas’ pony was surefoot and swift, but a small pony couldn’t keep up with a hunt-trained warmblood. Belle knew before they made it to the castle that they were already too late, despite the clatter of the pony’s hooves and the rush of leaves they carried behind them.
Belle kissed the pony as she scrambled off its back, dumping herself all knees and elbows on the cobblestone at the front gate. The doors hung open and broken, their beautiful carved wood hacked to splinters with an ax and the remnents scattered across the foyer carpet. Glass and ceramic pieces glittered on the threshold, broken for the sake of destroying something.
Belle’s fear began burning into anger.
It started at the bottom of her chest, like a smoldering coal that had lay buried for years, quietly glowing until fresh air could bring it back to life.
The fractured door and the broken pottery fell like dry tinder on the hot spark in her heart and blazed to life.
How dare Gaston break into this peaceful place? How dare he smear the quiet friendships she’d made with his oily touch?
Belle gathered her feet and ran into the castle.
Her breath was steady, her feet knew these halls, and nothing would stop her now.
She tracked Gaston by the swath of damage he left behind him: gouges from his axe in the painted portraits and along the wooden rails of the stairs, fractured vases, broken crystal, candles burned for light crushed into the rug where their wax and soot would destroy the embroidery.
Every shard of glass, every splinter, was another piece of fuel for the fire burning in Belle’s heart.
By the time she made the landing and could hear the fighting in the arboretum, she knew her anger blazed in her eyes. Her face felt tight. Her attention: focused. Her heart: still.
There was power in having nothing to lose.
But there was more in having something to protect.
She approached the arboretum doors.
And found the staff of the castle clustered there, afraid, but unwilling to leave, armed with mops, rakes, and fireplace pokers. Lumiere stood at the front, his candlesticks burning hot and low, riding one of the dining carts so he could be seen. He was surrounded by the entire staff, some of whom Belle had never met: the mantle clock who held a pair of sheers like a lance, a feather duster, the entire tea set, an old Grandfather clock with a soldier’s cap who stood as tall as Madam Armoire, and more.
They all faced into the arboretum where Belle heard Quinn’s roars and Gaston’s taunting voice.
Belle pushed her way delicately through the staff. They made way for her as they noticed her, murmuring among themselves hopefully. The dining cart wheeled sideways and Lumiere looked up at her with wide, sad eyes.
”Mon chere. You should not have come back,” he said, taking her hand in his as he snuffed his flame. ”It is too late.”
”It is never too late to help, Lumiere. It’s never too late to show up, even if all you’re here for is the end.”
Belle looked across the arboretum. Gaston and Quinn vaulted over raised beds, scrambled under hanging vines, and clashed with sword and claw. Gaston’s two lackeys stood aimlessly to one side, swords drawn but otherwise too frightened to engage. Except for the central quince tree espaliered around the wooden pergola, the room was a disaster.
Belle turned to the staff. ”You can run,” she said, her voice low. ”You can hide and no one will blame you.” She met their eyes one at a time. ”But I think you’re here because you love Quinn and you want to do something.” Belle saw nods, people stood taller, their expressions serious. ”I’m here to do something,” she said. ”And I could use your help.”
Madame Armoire shuffled forward, a broom in both handle-hands, saying, ”Tell us what to do, dearie.”
Belle nodded. ”You see these two men on the side? I want most of you to run at them. Hold your weapons high and scream at the top of your lungs. They won’t fight you, because you’re too many. They’ll run. Chase them right out of the castle.” Belle knelt to pick up the teapot and her teacups, placing them on a second breakfast cart. ”Smaller or slower staff on carts or on shoulders so you can keep up.”
Belle pulled Madam Armoire and the Grandfather clock to the side. ”You two are special. You’re the biggest ones here and I need your help to save Quinn.”
”You can count on us, miss,” the Grandfather clock said, standing at military attention, the mustache under his clock face bouncing. ”I was once part of the royal guard, you know.”
”I’m going to interrupt Gaston. I want you to help Quinn get away–”
”My dear, that man is a monster, you’ll be killed for sure.”
”If we do nothing, Quinn will die instead,” Belle said, holding Madam Armoire’s hands in her own. ”Now listen, we’re out of time. I will intervene. You back me up as if we’re all going to attack. Gaston is strong but he’s afraid. Of Quinn. Of me. Of you. He’ll chase me if I provoke him. You help Quinn and I’ll bait Gaston away from everyone–”
”Then what will you do with him?” the Grandfather clock asked.
Belle didn’t know.
A pained snarl roared across the room and Belle whirled to see Gaston standing over Quinn, his sword held high, a mad, gleaming smile on his face.
It was now or never!
”Are you with me?” Belle shouted, screaming to get Gaston’s attention. Every eye in the room turned to her.
Behind her, the staff held their makeshift weapons high and roared as one.
”Charge!” Belle yelled, and she ran into the arboretum straight for Gaston.
She heard Madam Armoire and the Grandfather clock on either side of her, their broom and iron poker held forward like swords, both of them screaming their fear and anger like a war-cry.
Gaston staggered back from Quinn, his eyes wide as he took in the charging staff of every household shape. His sword dropped to his side, head flashing to his backup only to see them swarmed by teacups and dusters on rolling carts led by a flaming candelabra. A small ottoman barked like a terrier and went for the ankles.
Gaston’s expression darkened and he turned it on Belle, lifting the sword toward her. He was cornered, she realized, alone and under assault. Ready to fight to the death. He wouldn’t flee. Backing down was impossible for him to consider. She needed to harass him into chasing her instead.
Belle flung one hand to the side. ”Help Quinn,” she shouted, and both Madam Armoire and the Grandfather clock redirected as planned.
Belle darted in close to Gaston, closer than he expected, and she slapped him across the face with every muscle in her body.
It didn’t hurt him, of course. But it made her feel a lot better.
And now he was entirely focused on her.
Belle hissed in his face, ”I made you a laughing stock in town. Catch me if you can.”
Blinding white hatred blanked across his eyes.
Belle turned and raced to the opposite end of the Arboretum, toward the now-dry waterfall and pond where she’d first bathed Quinn after their encounter with Gaston.
She heard Gaston’s pounding footsteps behind her, beating as fast as her heart. She could smell his wet breath.
But he’d just spent an unknowable amount of time fighting with Quinn to a standstill while she was fresh and fast.
Belle sprinted to a small door behind the waterfall. She’d never had a chance to explore it since Quinn didn’t like her wandering the arboretum. After being introduced to the library she hoped they’d become closer, close enough to start repairing the gardens here.
Gaston had done a great job of screwing that up.
But she knew the door was here and it was too small for Quinn to squeeze through, which meant they wouldn’t come rescue her after she’d just done the same.
Belle burst through the door and scrambled up the sudden flight of twisted stairs. Gaston had to point his sword back to turn up the staircase, which slowed him down.
Belle took advantage of the delay to throw open the old wooden door at the top, only to skid to a narrow stop just beyond. A semi-circle platform of stone held her perched against the tower wall. There might have been a railing once, but age and neglect had torn it down, along with a portion of the platform that shifted and threatened to crumble under her feet.
A wild, hysterical bubble of laughter escaped Belle’s lips as she pinwheeled har arms backward. The courtyard below loomed up like she was already falling, and to her exquisite horror, Belle spotted the dark, distant shape of her father down below, shading his eyes to look up at her as he arrived with Lukas.
Belle fell backward onto her butt and hands, crab-walking away from the edge.
Just in time for Gaston to clear the doorway with an enraged roar, sword in hand.
Belle tucked into a terrified ball, turning her face away from the edge and right into Gaston’s legs.
He pitched over her.
His sword skittered across the stones and flew into empty space, tumbling down and away in silence.
Gaston knelt at the edge and screamed his fury.
And Belle kicked him over. She braced both feet on his ass and shoved with every ounce of her strength.
Maybe it was the surprise of her push. Maybe the stone crumbled under Gaston’s weight.
Whatever it was, Gaston turned as he fell over the edge, eyes clear of anger for once and shockingly human. Full of fear.
One hand skimmed the stone, failing to purchase. The other reached for her and grabbed only air.
Belle stayed on her knees as she watched him fall, her heart suddenly still in her chest.
She’d just committed him to death.
Then, far below, she saw Lukas lift his arm to point at the falling Gaston.
And like magic Gaston twisted and changed before her very eyes. He shrank. His arms became wings. His clothing became feathers. And before he could hit the ground he’d been transformed into a small brown songbird. A tiny little bird indistinguishable from the thousands of other tiny brown songbirds in the forest. He fluttered in the air for a minute, twisting and turning, then swept off across the sky toward the mountain.
She lost sight of him immediately.
Belle put a hand on her mouth as she laughed. Relief made her sit back and shake.
She hadn’t killed him.
But it was very fitting that his fate was to live out the rest of his life as an unremarkable bird the size of a pinecone.
At least he wouldn’t be around to bother anyone else ever again.
Belle fell backward onto the stone with a huge sigh, immensely satisfied. The fire of her anger burned out, even the coal at the center, leaving her heart chilly and tired.
She was only there for a moment when Lumiere found her, his candles burning as low as she’d ever seen them.
Belle stood up in a heartbeat, already knowing why he’d come to find her. He didn’t need to say a word.
Something was wrong with Quinn.
She swept Lumiere up in her hands, her heart racing now for an entirely different reason, and fled down the stairs two at a time.
She burst into the arboretum and spotted all of the staff gathered in the center, a circle of sad eyes and lowered heads around the wooden pergola. Their weapons on the floor. In the center, where her father had once been, Quinn lay curled on their side, eyes closed and face at peace.
”No,” Belle choked, dropping Lumiere to grab her skirts and run. ”No, no, Quinn!”
She skidded on her knees across the broken tile to hold Quinn’s face and turn them to look at her. Their soft eyes opened slowly but that only made Belle’s eyes tear up as she checked them over.
Gaston had torn them to ribbons. The axe and the sword had shredded their beautiful blue dress coat sword. Deep, weeping cuts crisscrossed their arms and legs and chest, hacked fur chopped in every direction. So much blood covered the tiles.
Too much blood.
Quinn touched their hand to Belle’s and signed, ”I’m proud of you. Proud to call you friend.”
”No, no, no, Quinn, you’re going to be ok. I love you. Help is coming–”
Quinn interrupted with a long clawed finger on her lips and Belle choked on a sob.
”I love you, too. You showed me I’m worth loving.”
Yellow light brightened above the both of them, pulsing like a heartbeat. The light washed over them both like warm sunlight.
Lukas and Maruice arrived at the arboretum doorway, but Belle didn’t spare them a glance, she was too busy looking up in confusion at the light.
At the top of the pergola, dangling under the wood lattice, hung the single quince fruit, yellow and round like a pear. The fruit that Lumiere had once told her would shrivel and die, cursing the household forever as furniture. It pulsed, shedding light in waves of fire.
Quinn signed, a little smile on their face, ”Ah, it would be at the end that I figure out how to break the curse on my house.”
”This is not the end,” Belle insisted.
But she had no idea what to do. Above her the light pulsed, and under her hands Quinn’s heartbeat slowed.
She looked up at Luckas in a panic.
From across the room he signed, ”Share the fruit.” And gestured as if picking an apple from a tree.
Belle wasn’t so delicate. She jumped up, yanking the quince from its branch with a cascade of dying leaves. It pulsed in her hand, too warm and too bright, but the light made her feel alive and refreshed.
She brought it down to Quinn, who opened their eyes again and smiled.
It was soft like a pear and yielded to Belle’s fingertips. Light ran out of it like juice, dripping onto her skirts and splashing across the tile. She gave half to Quinn.
”Try it,” she said.
”You first,” they signed one-handed.
Belle narrowed her eyes and said, ”At the same time then.”
Quinn huffed, a purr of satisfaction rumbling out of their chest and directly into Belle’s heart.
They took a bite together and light blinded them both.
Warmth threaded across Belle’s skin and sank into her muscles. Into her very bones. It chased away the fatigue and fear and the pain, drove all of that away and replaced it with peace.
Then suddenly the light pulsed from her.
And she opened her eyes to see it surge out of Quinn, too. They stared at their hand where the fruit was gone, and so were the cuts and bruises. The slices that tore their coat to ribbons had been mended. The blood: scrubbed clean. Their fur: glistening and intact.
The light ran across the floor and overtook the staff like a crashing wave. They all cried out in surprise, then cried out again a moment later as teacups became children, the ottoman became a dog, the Grandfather clock a soldier in uniform, Madam Armoire a heavy-set woman wrapped in an elegant, silk ballroom dress. And Lumiere became a butler in long black tails.
The tiles under Belle’s knees shifted and repaired themselves, locking back into place with cascading clicks. Dirt and grime leapt off the ground and into the planters. The crumbling sides of the planters reassembled and straightened. The vines flushed green and pushed new leaves. The quince tree overhead burst into pink and red bloom like someone suddenly opening an umbrella.
The light struck the walls, cleaned the glass, repaired the rugs, and ran right past Lukas and Maurice to spread across the castle grounds from one end to the other and back again.
Belle climbed to her feet. She felt new, somehow. She touched her cheek and the scratch of afternoon beard growth was still there, but the makeup and powders were gone. Her dress, formerly white and torn across the bottom, had become bright yellow, like the quince fruit, and popped into shape as she stood to give it room.
Quinn climbed to their feet, brushing non-existent dust from their deep blue coat and checking their lion-like tail still fit through the coat tails in the back. Their antlers even had a fresh coat of velvet, like they were newly grown, making them fuzzy.
Lukas approached from the doorway, a knowing smile on his face.
Before he could say anything, Belle pointed at him. ”You knew!” she accused. ”Before I ever showed you sketches about the castle guardian I saw in the courtyard, you knew!”
Quinn turned, and when they spotted Lukas, they immediately knelt on one knee and bent their head low. Belle’s protests died out. Quinn’s hands moved rapidly, shaking like they were nervous. ”Respected Witch. The last time you came to visit I dishonored the both of us with my behavior. You don’t owe me forgiveness, but please accept my apologies.”
Lukas reached forward and squeezed Quinn’s arm. ”Quinn–I hear you go by Quinn now, right?–your apology is accepted and you were forgiven many years ago. Please, stand.”
Belle glanced between Quinn and Lukas, feeling a bit like a blinking owl.
Quinn stood and Lukas smiled up at them. ”You know, the quince would have changed you back to human if you wanted.”
Quinn shook their head. ”It took a long time to understand your lesson and I’m not the person I was before. I am the be–” Quinn paused mid-gesture and looked down at Belle with a soft smile. ”I’m the Guardian of the castle. Antlers, fur, and all.”
Belle took Quinn’s hand when they offered it and she leaned into their side. She smirked at Lukas. ”You know, Quinn has a bigger library than you do.”
Lukas immediately stood taller, his eyes shuttering as he said, ”My library is curated, thank you very much.”
”Uh huh,” Belle nodded, smiling wide.
Then there was no room for talking because the entire household staff mobbed them all at once, talking and yelling and hollering their joy.
Belle was spun away from Quinn by Madam Armoire, who belted an aria at the top of her lungs, then passed to a soldier with a handlebar mustache that looked strikingly familiar. Then to another person and another and another until a thin man dressed in a black suit rescued her from the revelry and bowed low over her hand, his eyes twinkling like candle flame.
”Mademoiselle, it is my intense pleasure to finally, properly, introduce myself. Lumiere, at your service from dawn until dusk. You have only to call my name.”
Belle laughed with delight and flung her arms around Lumiere’s neck. He staggered, surprised, and then wrapped her in a hug and swung her around.
When he set her back down, Belle stood beside him, watching Quinn chuff and purr at every new person. The children–formerly teacups–climbed his back and sat on his shoulders while the terrier dog–the ottoman–barked and hopped in delighted circles around the whole crowd.
Belle’s father came to stand beside her and she took his hand in hers.
He squeezed. ”For a minute there…”
She squeezed back and nodded. ”Yeah.”
Quinn lifted a little girl dressed in a black and white maid’s outfit and threw her into the air, catching her only to throw her again. The girl squealed. Her similarly dressed mother gasped and berated Quinn, who handed her the child. The girl shouted, ”Again! Again!” as her mother dragged her away, muttering that there had to be something around here to clean now that everything had been put to rights.
Belle leaned her head on her father’s shoulder.
She spotted Lukas across the crowd. He winked and she smiled back at him.
She still had questions: about magic and sign language.
But maybe it was good to have unanswered questions. To keep a little mystery in the world.
The surprises were better that way.
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