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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It was late afternoon before Belle left the town behind her and headed home. She’d never regret a day spent at Lukas’ shop, but she really did have chores to tend to and she’d skipped lunch so her stomach complained loudly the entire walk back. Thankfully, after ambushing Gaston with Laurien that morning, Belle hadn’t seen any sign of him for the rest of the day.
Her basket hung heavy on her arm with groceries and supplies, her new books from Lukas tucked on the sides, and she nibbled on a stick of aged sharp cheese crusted with soft herbs.
She was just licking the last of the salty snack off her fingers as the cottage came into view. She expected to find her father in the yard that stretched out from the front door, cleared painstakingly of brush and stone years ago by her parents, back when her mother had been pregnant with Belle and refused to slow down for a little thing like a baby on the way. The stones lined the edge of the yard while a tangle of vegetables grew in their place, spilling over each other in their race to the sun.
Her father wasn’t in the yard.
Instead, Gaston sat on the stone steps of the cottage, collapsed against the door, his sword a few feet away on the path.
Belle froze at the gate as her heart dropped in her chest and every hair on her body stood up in alarm. Gaston had never come to the house before. He’d never tried to find her outside of town.
Gaston coughed roughly and spat something red into the grass. Belle dropped her basket at the gate and ran to him. Then she saw the blood smeared on the cobblestones. The distorted boot prints in the dirt. There were rips and tears in Gaston’s pristine hunting coat and blood streaked across his face like he’d tried to wipe it away.
Belle screamed as she ran up to the door and Gaston lurched upright. His eyes wouldn’t focus and he seemed half-dead there on the step. Belle shoved him back and yanked her cabin door open. Gaston grunted. She paid him no mind. “Daddy!” she shouted, stumbling to a stop inside the single-room. “DADDY!”
The cabin had been torn apart. Feathers and hay from the bedding lay everywhere, torn to shreds. The few books Belle kept at home were scattered, their pages strewn in every corner. Glassware and bowls lay in shattered fans. The table had been flipped onto its side and nearly every piece of clothing in the cabin seemed to be thrown in the air to land where it may.
And under Belle’s boots, a dark streak of blood across the doorway.
Gaston shifted to his feet slowly, his boots and pants scratching on the stone. Belle whirled on him, fear burning to fury in a white-hot flash.
“I tried to save him,” Gaston coughed heavily.
Belle didn’t want to hear it. She shoved him off her front steps, dogging him as he stumbled backward and shoved again until he fell on the cobblestones as if all the strength had gone out of him at once.
“I was attacked by that monster!” Gaston insisted. He swiped his hair out of eyes, dragging blood into the blond.
“Where’s my father? What did you do to him?”
“Don’t lie to me!” Belle kicked her boot into Gaston’s side, her fury overflowing. She needed to find her father. All this blood….
Gaston’s tired, pleading face dropped in an instant. He grabbed Belle’s wrist and stood smoothly, one swift and angry motion.
He hadn’t been injured at all. Or even winded. The pitiful look on Belle’s front steps had been a ruse, just like everything else.
Terror quenched her rage as quickly as Gaston shifted moods and she tried to step away.
He held her fast.
The anger on his face twisted his handsome lines into a beast. “I have tried everything with you. I’ve asked politely. I’ve given you gifts. I’ve invited you to parties that the real women in this town would kill to attend—“
Belle yanked herself free and stumbled back several steps, her breath coming in gasps and starts. Her heart raced in her throat. She was going to be sick.
She’d known Gaston was a bigot. Of course she’d known. But he’d never said anything out loud, not where Belle had heard him, not in public when he pretended to be generous and kind. And when it wasn’t overt she could almost pretend it didn’t exist at all.
But the words were like a slap in the face. She couldn’t breathe.
She’d known and she’d tried not to.
She was too full of fear and horror and anger to think straight. Tears overflowed and her chest squeezed too tightly, Belle gasped. Gaston loomed closer, suffocating her, his heroic veneer shifted into something evil.
Belle whirled away from Gaston and ran. She tore past the garden, her feet finding the familiar path into the woods. Her tears made everything swim and she kept gasping for air like she was drowning, but her boots were firm and her flight swift and sure.
She didn’t look back. She couldn’t. If Gaston wanted to chase her down, he’d find her hard prey to catch. This forest was her backyard. Her sanctuary. She knew every root and stump and leaf. She knew every turn in the trail.
Gaston would not catch her.
Belle sprinted like the deer she’d seen on her morning walks, every foot solid and sure. The forest unfolded before her and the leaves obscured her trail behind. In two heartbeats she’d disappeared. In three she’d lost Gaston. In four Belle ran out of breath.
And she stumbled to a stop at the edge of the castle.
She darted into the courtyard, running on more instinct than logic. The castle creature had seen her here before. Maybe they could see her now?
She spun in a tight circle, checking all doorways and arches, looking for signs of life.
And on the bench she spotted blood.
With a cry she rushed to the stone. She covered her mouth with one hand, praying it wasn’t human. Then immediately praying it wasn’t the castle’s guardian either.
It had better be Gaston’s blood. Belle wanted him to—
She stopped that thought and with one trembling hand, measured the smear of blood she had found. Five fingers. A human print. And small, like hers.
Gaston’s hands were the size of dinner plates. This was her father. It had to be.
Belle whirled away from the stone and stumbled through the back archway, shoving overgrown bushes aside to find the solid wooden door fixed to the castle walls.
She collapsed against the door, fear shoving tears from her eyes and making her shake. She pounded on the wood, sobbing more than pleading for the guardian to answer the door. Her father was around.
She couldn’t do this alone.
The door creaked as it tipped inward.
Not the movement of someone opening the door for her, but the movement of a door left unlatched. Belle stumbled inward, so surprised she hiccuped on her next sob, and her shoes clicked on polished stone.
Belle grabbed at her skirt and wiped her face clean of tears, forcing herself to breathe slow and steady. She had to calm down. To think. She couldn’t help anyone in a panic.
Belle pushed the door open all the way and daylight spilled into the hall. It wasn’t dark exactly, but a thick layer of dust and cobweb spoke to how rarely this passage was used. The stone walls were cool to the touch, and several candles mounted into them had burned down their bases years ago. But the footprints on the floor, disturbing the dust, said someone had come through recently.
Belle pressed her hands to her hot face. She sniffed and took two deep breaths, trying to calm her racing heart and the painful contractions in her chest.
Then with more recklessness than bravery, she pushed the door closed behind her and marched into the castle seeking the guardian who lived here.
The hallways gloomed with neglect. Paintings hung in frames on the walls, indistinguishable under the dust. Skinny side tables with tiny cabinets and delicate glass doors perched on either side of the hall, their brass knobs tarnished and dull. The ceiling stretched higher than Belle expected, the peaks lost in the shadows of time.
Every inch of the hall felt abandoned and if Belle hadn’t known for a fact the wooden door had been locked only a few days ago, she would have assumed no one lived here at all.
But the trail of swept dust on the floor lead her onward and Belle followed.
She emerged into a large room from the side, clearly a servant’s entrance meant to be out of the way. A thick red rug ran the length of it, decorated with fine embroidery in gold. The room lead directly to a sweeping staircase and the rug crawled up to the very top. On the right-hand banister, a small candelabra with three burning candles, cast the only flickering light in the room. The space yawned with emptiness.
Belle took the candelabra in hand and noticed the brass shined from bottom to top. Someone was keeping this piece polished. She lifted the light and followed the rug up the stairs.
Silence thickened like the dust on the banister. Belle felt the sound of her breathing echo off the walls like a physical thing, pushing her back. Almost as if the castle was trying to convince her there was nothing to find here. To just go home.
To stop looking.
Belle tightened her grip on the candelabra and marched down the rug at the top of the stairs. Nothing and no one would stop her from finding her father. Not Gaston, not the castle guardian, and certainly not some spooky castle magic.
But the number of rooms, hallways, and additional stairs that branched away from her now gave her pause. If she were a larger-than-human castle guardian with a wide rack of antlers living alone…. Where would she stay?
Belle turned a slow circle in the middle of the rug as she considered her options. “If I had to carry someone injured, I wouldn’t go very far,” she mused out loud. “And I would need room to tend to them.”
As she turned, the light of the candelabra seemed to lean toward an unadorned hallway off the main rug-path. It could have been a trick of her eyes, but Belle followed the sign anyway. The short hall branch ended at an elaborate set of iron-wrought doors. They towered overhead, small pinpoints of light filtering through thick stained glass. The ironwork resembled a tree that split into vine-like branches. Each glass window hung from a branch like a fruit. There was sunlight on the other side of these doors.
Belle pressed her free hand to the smooth handle and stepped inside.
Waning afternoon sun, like a filter of gold, slanted through aged glass in all directions. While the castle had been hallways and bricks at perfect angles, this room stretched taller than the trees it contained, a glass dome so large the panes seemed to get lost in the sky above. This room wasn’t dusty, though the garden it contained had been neglected for a long time.
Raised beds lined with marble lay barren. Ivy vines, like the ribs of some giant creature, crawled up the dome and crisscrossed the glass. In the center of the dome, a huge vine, or maybe a tree that had been trained, crawled up and around a wooden pergola. It was nearly empty of leaves, just bare wood gleaming in the dappled sunlight worn smooth by a thousand strokes of hands.
The castle guardian knelt in the small courtyard under the pergola, their antlers stretching nearly to the vine above. Their eyes were closed, hands on their thighs, hooves tucked carefully underneath their body.
And they knelt over a prone body laid on a stone bench.
Belle rushed across the decorative tiles but her knees gave out at the edge of the raised beds and she crashed, suddenly weak with fear, against the marble. She had to put the candelabra down or risk lighting the leaf litter and dry, dead plants on fire.
The guardian looked up and Belle recognized a weary expression on their face. One worn down with time. It was clear even through the strange goat-like muzzle and wide eyes. Some things surpassed species.
Belle hefted her skirts and climbed to her feet. The sight of the guardian was both frightening and comforting. They remained seated as Belle approached in spurts of bravery until she recognized the tightly curled black hair of her father. Then nothing could keep her away. She ran to him despite how close it put her to the guardian and draped herself over him, afraid for a heart-stopping moment that he was dead and gone.
Then his broad chest lifted as he breathed quietly, asleep on the bench. “Oh, thank the stars,” Belle whispered. She kissed his forehead and inspected her father. Clean white bandages wrapped one of his arms and more wrapped around his ribs, stark against his dark skin. Expertly tended.
The guardian had done this.
Belle turned to them, still kneeling on the broken tiles of the pagoda. Their long goat-like face drooped with exhaustion, ears dangling. If antlers could hang low, they would have. The guardian hugged themself under Belle’s scrutiny, as if they were the one afraid.
Belle went to her knees in front of the guardian and touched their furred arm. “You did this for him?”
The guardian nodded, a gentle motion so their antlers didn’t whack Belle on the head.
“Thank you. Thank you,” She said. “I don’t want to think of what Gaston would have done. That man is a beast and he—“
The guardian flinched at Belle’s words and she snapped her mouth shut, suddenly embarrassed with herself. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ve gotten ahead of myself. I’m Belle. This is my father, Maurice. The person you no doubt fought with is called Gaston and he’s an awful person.”
Belle gasped as she remembered the sword covered in blood and the smears around her house. “Oh my stars, are you hurt? Please show me.” Belle scrambled to her feet and found the bandages and supplies used to tend her father at the foot of the bench. She gathered them in hand and circled the guardian, only to cry out in shock when she saw their back. Long cuts from shoulder to hip crisscrossed their back, oozing slowly and matted with blood. Belle swallowed her panic and looked around the garden. She needed more than a small bottle of disinfectant for this. Their back looked like Gaston had tried to hack through them with his sword just to get to the other side.
Belle spotted a flowing waterfall that dropped into a pond. Once, the pond had fed a shallow stream through the garden, but that path was clogged with leaf litter now. The water still burbled out of the falls and appeared clear, though. It would have to do.
With a plan, Belle’s shakes subsided and she dropped her supplies at the edge of the pond to help the guardian clean up. Where had that candelabra gone? She found it on the stone bench beside her father and handed it to the guardian. “Come. Let me help you get cleaned up.”
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