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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The castle had never looked so inviting and festive. Breaking Lukas’ curse on the house had repaired the windows and doors, had stitched up the rugs and unstained the stains. But it took the staff working day after day to hang the ribbons, train garlands of quince in bloom, and string lines of tiny electric lights all around the arboretum.
A party was underway.
Belle wore her incredible yellow ball gown, the former wedding dress that the magic from the quince fruit had transformed into a large, flowing gown that draped off her shoulders in layers of ruched silk. Her favorite pale ballet flats were hidden under the fluffy dress, she wore a pair of dangly earrings, and her father had spent hours over the last few days re-braiding her hair from top to bottom in the smallest braids she’d ever seen. Smaller than her pinky finger. There were hundreds of little braids cascading over her shoulders, now, a few of them with gold beading and ribbons.
Unlike the disaster wedding, Belle went without powders or paints. They made her skin feel dry. Instead, she glossed her lips and nothing more. And with that she was ready.
The entire village had been invited. The castle buzzed with happy people–the staff no longer trapped as furniture, the castle itself restored, Gaston nothing but an unpleasant memory–there was much to celebrate. Belle and one of the housekeepers, Marie, spent their afternoons writing invitations until their hands cramped that Lukas had delivered to each home, and everyone had returned their response to attend. Everyone. There hadn’t been a party like this in anyone’s memory and Belle was determined to play perfect hostess.
There was music and food enough for everyone.
Of course, she couldn’t do it without Lumiere organizing the kitchen and Madam Armoire signing her welcome in the atrium.
And the guests kept coming and coming.
Belle started the night intended to say hello and have a quick chat with everyone who stepped in the castle, but only a few minutes after Quinn opened the door, it seemed, the entire village arrived en masse and it was all Belle could to not to be swept away from the entrance into the arboretum up the stairs.
Laurien found her almost immediately, dressed in a new green gown that matched the darkest leaves in the arboretum and hand stitched with gold along the edges. She brought a small gift wrapped with a bow.
Belle wanted to avoid her at first. Their history wasn’t exactly friendly. But after Laurien’s display at the wedding, and the fact that she’d come apparently alone, stayed Belle’s judgment. She smiled gently and welcomed Laurien to the castle.
Laurien shoved the gift ahead of her like she didn’t know what to do with it and habitually tucked her hair behind her ear, even though all her hair had been tied up in curls and there was nothing to tuck. ”Thank you for the invitation,” she said quietly, and Belle had to slide closer to hear. ”I had to do a little research for your gift.”
Belle untied the bow at her urging and folded the paper back to reveal a book. And not just any book, but book three in the series she’d been reading the day Quinn found her in the courtyard. The same book Quinn had taken and Belle had later filed in the castle library. This was a very specific gift.
Belle smiled and held the book to her chest. ”Thank you, this is perfect. You must have spoken with Lukas?”
”That’s right,” she said. ”I’m afraid I’m not really a reader, so I asked for his help. But when I looked through the book I was surprised. There are adventures and sword fights and a woman traveling the world all on her own.” Laurien shrugged. ”The books I was told a lady reads.…” she shook her head and laughed. ”Well this one was a lot more interesting so I asked Lukas what book I should start with and he gave me two to try.”
Pleasantly surprised, Belle straightened and nodded. ”I see! Which ones did he suggest?”
Laurien’s face scrunched, ”I don’t remember the titles. One is about a magic ring that can make the person who wears it invisible?”
”Oh yes,” Belle said, her grin spreading. ”That’s one of Lukas’ favorites. It’s a good place to start. It shows how one person can change the course of the whole world.”
”The other one has a lady riding one the back of a dragon and Lukas said it was your favorite series.”
”Oh!” Belle nodded again. ”The dragon is gold and there’s a big red sun in the sky?” At Laurien’s bemused nod, Belle bounced a little on her toes. ”Those books are so good. I really hope you like them.”
”You have tea with Lukas in the mornings, right?”
”Most days, yes.”
”If I see you there, may I join you? Maybe we can talk about books.”
The cautious hope in Lauren’s light eyes prompted Belle to reach out and put a hand on her arm. ”That would be lovely.”
Her nose scrunched again. ”We’ll just have to avoid Gaston.”
Belle laughed. ”He won’t be a problem anymore. Not to anyone. In fact, you shouldn’t see him in town at all.”
But the news just seemed to make Laurien wilt. She looked down and away, tucking her hair again behind her ear. ”I’m sorry I’ve been such a judgemental neighbor. He followed you around so much, I thought you were… I don’t know, stringing him along for sport.” She squared her shoulders. ”I made some stupid assumptions and it turns out he was harassing you the whole time and I’m sorry I didn’t realise. I should have talked to you. I should have–” she made a frustrated sound. ”I’m so mad at him. And it’s good that he’s gone, it is, but I really wish I could hit him,” she said, making a fist.
Belle’s heart swelled with every word and she had to blink hard to keep tears from spilling over her cheeks. Who knew that such a kind heart had been hiding behind Laurien’s cold eyes all these years?
”Well, you should know that I did get to slap him before he left.”
Laurien gasped and her eyes lit up with mischief. ”Was it solid? Did it feel good?”
”It felt so good,” Belle confided. ”Is that terrible?”
”No! He was a beast!”
They giggled conspiratorially together.
And that was where Quinn found them an hour later, seated at the edge of the arboretum gossiping.
Belle introduced them officially, saying, ”Laurien, this is Quinn. They are the keeper of this castle and they’re also a great lover of books.”
Laruien was visibly unsure about Quinn and their massive antlers, but she held out her hand anyway and kept her chin up. ”It’s lovely to meet you, Quinn.”
Quinn bowed carefully over Laurien’s hand and gestured with the other.
Belle translated, ”They say the honor is theirs and if you have need of a book, their library is open to you.”
”Oh a library!” said Laurien, glancing at Belle. ”Like Lukas’?”
”Much bigger,” Belle smiled, ”But don’t tell him that.”
Quinn signed again, including Laurien even though she didn’t understand the language. Belle translated, ”Apologies, but may I borrow Belle for a dance?”
”Ohhhh!” Laurien said, nudging Belle up from her seat. ”Yes, you can! Go!”
Belle laughed as Quinn pulled her away and realized the evening had advanced past sundown without her noticing. Guests trickled into the arboretum from their dinner service in pairs and quads to line the edges of the room and enjoy the music.
Madam Armoire stood on a raised platform near the waterfall, a quartet of strings behind her, and lifted her hands as she began to sing.
Quinn spun Belle to the center of the arboretum, and they danced in a quiet circle around the quince tree in the center with its riot of red and pink blooms.
Quinn’s hands were large in hers, tipped with black claws, but their touch was delicate and precise. Belle let her feet find the waltz and she closed her eyes when Quinn spun her around so that her dress flared at the edges just like her braids.
She’d never felt more content, more seen, more loved.
And she’d never seen Quinn more confident and proud.
Something more than a bit of magic had changed in both of them.
The song slowed. Quinn led Belle under the pergola, where the quince flowers shielded them from guests, and they drew closer. Belle rested her head on Quinn’s chest and felt the quiet rumbling purr vibrating down deep.
The sound mixed with Madam Armoire’s voice. The strings sang like birds.
And Belle knew this was the first moment of the rest of her life.
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