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 quince tree bloomed pink and red, a thick curtain of flowers that crawled up one wall of the crumbling castle courtyard where Belle loved to pass the day reading in the sun. There were several quince here along the perimeter. Once upon a time they had been espaliered along the wall in neat, organized rows, covering the stone from one end to the other. Since the castle was abandoned, though, their branches grew in every direction, tangling with each other and creating a half-canopy simply overrun by blooms.
The remains of two long stone benches held up in one corner, where Belle liked to sit, and there was a tangled, thorny pile of roses in the center of the courtyard that could have been a fountain once. She liked to imagine the queen of the castle sitting among her garden, sipping tea in the early afternoon sun. Perhaps gossiping with the Ladies for hours.
There wasn’t much left intact outside the castle. It had been abandoned before Belle was born and when she was younger she mapped the entire perimeter—where out of control thorn bushes allowed. The front gates were barred with iron, and the two side doors she found were likewise secure. She’d never been inside. Most of the stonework had been overgrown by the forest when she discovered the place, and every year, the greenery inched a little higher up on the walls. Belle kept only a single path clear to the courtyard under an arched wall still intact. And the stone bench, of course, where she loved to sit and read.
Rumors in town said the castle was haunted by the royal family or cursed by some witch and everyone inside died in a single night. Belle didn’t believe a word of it. She’d enjoyed this place for years without a single hint of a hunting.
Birds made their nests in the quince trees and chickorees ran along their branches, chattering at each other to negotiate for food. Roses budded in red, yellow, and pink, each bush a rogue plant bursting up through the stones. Rarely, the deer passed by, their dark shapes stepping through the trees just beyond the arch in the wall with careful precision. Their dark eyes spotted her in the courtyard, watching warily, before they moved on. Belle liked to leave a handful of nuts for the squirrels when she arrived and watch them hop across the courtyard to collect them while she read, their tails waving like flags.
Nature made the stones beautiful now, but what a glorious place this must have been when it was maintained.
Leaves rustled under the arch. Belle glanced up, expecting a bird. She spotted a creature as big as the stone wall. Their huge antlers, like a deer but much larger, scraped against the top the arch, which was so tall that Belle couldn’t touch it even when she got a running start. It wasn’t a deer, though. They stood on two shaggy legs, had a bulky body like a bear, the face of a goat, and a thick mane around their shoulders like a lion. Shaggy arms ended in very human-like hands on the wall of the courtyard, rustling the leaves there.
Belle swallowed, her eyes growing wider as she took in the cloven hooves the size of dinner plates and billowing breath like steam.
She didn’t find herself afraid. The creature seemed more at home in the ruins than any other. But Belle held her breath as they watched one another and she knew any wrong move would break the spell. She saw curiosity and longing, but also fear. Belle had been coming to this courtyard for years. How long had this creature been watching?
Belle softly closed the book in her hands. The creature’s eyes snapped to the motion like a wary animal caught in the stare of a predator. But that couldn’t be right. Belle was half their size. And those horns…
She put the book on the bench. “Hello,” she said gently.
The creature looked up from the book. Did they speak?
Slowly, so carefully, Belle stood up from the bench. “My name is Belle,” she said.
The creature fled. They were gone so quickly a breeze gusted through the courtyard behind them and it took Belle a moment to realize they hadn’t just disappeared, they’d run away. She grabbed her dress skirt and ran to the arch. She followed the only open path in the overgrowth but that led to a corner with a door to the castle that was barred and unmoving. Ivy crawled around the door jam and obscured most of the wall. The door itself, a heavy timber banded with metal and studs.
Belle shook the handle but the door just rattled against its lock. She frowned and backtracked along the path. The creature had large, powerful legs. Had they simply lept over the overgrown thorn bushes and vanished into the forest?
Belle peered into the woods for a while, seeking any sign of movement or a hint of those great antlers. But eventually the birds resumed their singing and the chickorees their chattering without any sign of something larger.
Curious, Belle returned to the courtyard. She tried to remember the stories about the castle, of hauntings and curses, but she didn’t have the details. She’d have to ask her father. And Lukas. He probably had a collection of myths she could read.
Belle collected her basket and froze at the bench. Her book was gone. She checked the ground and under the bench. No book. But here, hoofprints fresh in the wet moss. Prints larger than her hand when she stretched her fingers wide.
She looked up at the castle, scanning the tops of the courtyard walls for any other way in. Unless there was a secret door, the creature had to have snuck past her on the path or come around the back and scaled the wall. She couldn’t imagine it.
There had to be a secret door. Maybe they were watching her now, waiting to see what she would do about the missing book.
Belle straightened her back and cleared her throat, projecting her voice into the courtyard. “That book is one of my favorite. It’s book two in a series but I can bring the first one from home next time… if you want to read them.” She glanced around the crumbling stone and overgrown quince.
Nothing and no one talked back but the birds.
Belle nodded once, checked her basket for the canteen she’d brought—that was still there—and made her way out of the courtyard to the forest path she’d worn between the trees. Next time she’d bring extra books. But not before she spoke to Lukas.