Author's note: Special thanks to darkslover on tumblr for being the catalyst for this AU story. The original idea was proposed by them and if they hadn't, this wouldn't exist! Anyway, please like and review, and I hope you guys enjoy this! Happy reading!
It was raining perhaps a little heavier than usual. The grass was already wet and the vegetable patch was starting to get muddy. Belle stood on the balcony, partially protected from the thunderous rain by the leaky roof above her head. Squinting, she looked through the rain and down towards the street, desperately trying to make out if she could see Phillipe.
The sky was becoming darker by the minute, which only added to her anxiety since it meant that it would become nearly impossible to make out her father's carriage in the darkness. As always, Belle knew that once night fell, their street would become pitch black and she would have to give up and go inside.
Their cottage was situated on the very edge of a rural town in the heart of France, an insignificant place named Villeneuve. The council had only the money to light the inner most part of the town, for reasons which everyone knew perfectly well. However, some people who lived in the centre took pride in this, as it gave them an opportunity to distinguish themselves amongst their small community. They viewed those who lived on the edges of the provincial town as below them in class and place in society. Those unfortunate provided a small form of entertainment for them, as they could gossip and wonder who was going to end up next in the debtor's prison.
Belle and her father fell into this group of discriminated persons; not that they minded or paid much attention to it. As her father once told her, the village may be small-minded, but at least it was safe. Belle often wondered what her father meant by 'safe'. The only thing she knew was that they had moved away from Paris because, for whatever reason, it had become unsafe for them to remain there.
"Where are you papa," murmured Belle to herself as she wrapped her shawl tightly around herself, the wind causing her to shiver. She was really starting to get worried.
Luckily for her, a carriage soon revealed itself through the thick fog, which was starting to descend upon the town. Belle gradually began to recognize Phillipe's shadow and the wagon he was pulling.
"Papa!" shouted Belle as she descended the steps hastily and ran out into the rain.
"Belle!" replied her father, who, with difficulty, climbed down the wagon to embrace his daughter.
"Papa, I thought you wouldn't make it back through the storm," said Belle, hugging her father tightly. He was as cold as ice.
"I had to come back tonight. I didn't want you to worry," replied her father warmly with a small smile before he started to cough.
"Come, Papa, get inside. I'll take Phillipe to the stable. I'll take care of the wagon tomorrow morning once the rain has stopped."
"I managed quite well this time at the market. Sold nearly everything," replied her father as he made his way towards their humble home.
Belle grinned in response before detaching Phillipe from the cart and taking him quickly into the stable.
"There you go," sighed Belle as she rubbed her horse's neck and put down a bucket of water next to him. "Thank you for always bringing him home safely."
She couldn't deny that she hadn't noticed that her father was becoming more and more frail every time he came back from one of his trips. It was these trips to the market which kept a roof over their heads, but Belle knew that soon enough she could no longer rely on her father. It was only a matter of years, perhaps even months, before she would need to do more than work in the fields and read books all day. Although she took pride in her inventions, she knew that it couldn't be something she could depend on financially. If only she had been born a man…. She doubted that the villagers would view her as odd if she had been.
This is the world we live in Belle.
Belle felt her hands instinctively grip Phillipe's reins tightly.
Gaston's words sent a chill down her spine. She would never openly admit it, but he did have a point.
The local village hero, a celebrated soldier he may be, but to Belle, Gaston represented everything she detested. Even if she did end up like Agatha, begging on the streets, it was a far better situation to be in than that of Gaston's wife. That would be soul destroying for Belle, something she could never accept. Luckily her father understood this and saw past Gaston's grandiose gestures, seeing him for what he truly was.
"I want so much more than this provincial life," muttered Belle to herself as she left Phillipe to return to the cottage. As she turned a corner to climb up the steps, she noticed a large carriage coming down the street, along with two riders. The carriage was black with open windows.
Belle's eyes widened as she hastily ran the steps and barged into the dining room where her father was warming his hands by the stove.
"Father, there's a carriage outside and-"
Her daughter needn't have said anymore. Maurice knew exactly who it was.
"It's alright Belle, we have the money, we can pay them and soon they will be on their way."
No sooner had he finished reassuring his daughter when there came a loud and violent knock of the front door.
"I will get it," said Maurice firmly as he put on his coat, restraining his daughter from answering it.
As he opened the door, the freezing, cold, night air from outside came swooping inside, extinguishing whatever warm atmosphere that had been there before.
"Monsieur," drawled a middle-aged man in an almost disinterested manner, holding out a partially wet piece of parchment. Behind him stood two guardsmen, wearing the symbol of the debtor's prison. "You have failed to pay yet again. This is the second time in six months. You have no choice but to be taken to the debtor's prison."
"Now wait a minute Monsieur," replied Maurice, his voice surprisingly calm. "I have the money from market today. This should be sufficient."
Fishing out a piece of parchment from his waist pocket, Maurice passed to Monsieur D'Arque a list of all the trinkets he had sold that day. As for D'Arque, he merely lifted his eyebrows as he looked down at the list.
After a moment, during which Maurice smiled tenderly at Belle who was standing just slightly behind him, D'Arque spoke.
"It's not enough."
"What?" replied Maurice, astonished.
"I'm sorry Maurice, but it's not enough. I must take you to the debtor's prison where you will pay what you owe through manual labour. It is the only way."
"But last time, this was enough! This doesn't make any sense!" protested Maurice as Belle grabbed hold of his hand. It was still cold from the endless hours of riding he had had to endure. Now it seemed as if that had all been for nothing.
D'Arque looked warily at Belle's distraught face before speaking again.
"The taxes have been raised again."
"I knew it," snapped Maurice as he ran his right hand shakily through his grey hair. "How much more money does that pompous-"
"I would be careful with your words Maurice. You know what happens to those who start protesting against the aristocracy-"
"I don't care!" shouted Maurice in response, his emotions getting the better of him. "That selfish 'Prince' who lives in that shining castle is going to regret the way he has been taxing all the surrounding villages. One day, if he's not careful-"
"Papa," interrupted Belle, begging her father to stop. This was not helping them, as much as she hated the nobility as much as her father did.
"Maurice," sighed D'Arque, pulling out a pair of heavy-looking handcuffs. "Please, you know the law."
Maurice stared at the metal handcuffs for a moment before turning in resignation towards Belle.
"Listen to me Belle," he started, trying to steady his voice as he took his precious daughter's hands into his own for perhaps the last time in his life. "You must leave Villeneuve. Go as far away as you can from this village, from this heartless place. Find somewhere where you will not end up in a debtor's prison like me. You are clever, beyond your years, and you are fearless, just like your mother."
"But Papa, I can't let you-" started Belle, who could already feel the tears starting to well up in her eyes.
"No, Belle, I have lived my life. You must go on without me. I love you."
The guards proceeded to swiftly grab hold of Maurice's arms and pull him outside.
"Wait!" protested Belle, she too stepping out into the rain to follow them to the black carriage which was parked in front of the vegetable patch.
"Mademoiselle, I am terribly sorry, but I'm afraid this is the world we live in," said D'Arque as he opened the doors at the back of the carriage.
This is the world we live in.
Belle paused as she watched D'Arque lift her father into the carriage.
"Is there really no other way?"
D'Arque paused, his hands on the wooden doors. Inside, Maurice sat frowning at him, confused by the sudden stop of his movements. There was something about the girl's voice which made him listen. There was something strong, determined, unfazed about it. He closed his eyes before looking up the young woman.
She was pretty. Brown hair, brown eyes. Blonde would have been better. But….
D'Arque paused and looked once more at the spirited young woman. No, there was more than that. She was beautiful, in a subtle way. In the sort of way where if one was observant, one would look twice and see a strong spirit. This was a good thing. It meant she could survive there.
But it also meant that it would make it that much more dangerous for her.
But it also made it a possibility.
Belle narrowed her eyes as she noticed D'Arque staring at her melancholically.
"There is a way," he muttered before stepping away from the carriage and walked towards her. "But you won't like it."
"Will it keep my father out of prison?" asked Belle, raising her eyebrows in defiance.
"Yes," replied D'Arque, shrugging his shoulders. "But it would mean placing you in a different kind of prison instead."
"What do you mean? A different debtor's prison?"
"No mademoiselle," said D'Arque, shaking his head. "It might be possible for you to work at the Prince's castle."
Belle stared in disbelief. She could hardly believe her ears. She knew, of course, of young women in the village who went off to be scullery maids at the castle, but they lived in the centre and didn't have fathers being dragged off to debtor's prisons.
"Usually you would need a reference. But, you could probably get away with it. I overheard someone in the pub saying that one of the maids had been dismissed."
"Why are you suggesting this to me specifically?" asked Belle in a guarded manner. Something about his tone felt off.
"The Prince is reportedly fond of pretty faces. Whereas other girls would never manage to get a foot near that place, I think you might be able to do so. The Prince is known to accept young women in families of financial struggle to work for him, to pay off their debts. You would be working as the lowest of the low of course. Mostly maintaining the castle grounds or working in the cellars and kitchens where no one would ever see you. Of course, this all comes at a price."
"What do you mean?" asked Belle hesitantly.
"You would never be able to leave. Once you start working there, you are bound by a contract to stay within the castle's boundaries. It's their way of making sure that no one outside of the castle knows it's ins and outs. Prevents gossip from circulating."
"So, I could never see my father again," murmured Belle.
"Yes," replied D'Arque. "Unless you were dismissed, which in your case would only lead to your father's imprisonment."
"Belle, I won't let you do this!"
Belle turned towards the direction of her father's voice. He was listening through the bars of the carriage.
"Papa," sighed Belle as she came closer to the window and grabbed her father's hand through the metal bars. "This is the only way. It'll be fine. I'll be in a castle-"
"With a Beast!" protested Maurice. "Belle, I will not let you throw your life away for me."
"I love you Papa," whispered Belle before kissing her father's hand with all the tenderness she could muster before letting go and saying "but this is my choice. It won't be forever. Just until our debt is paid. Then I promise I will return."
"Belle, no!" shouted Maurice as he watched his only daughter approach D'Arque once more.
"You will release my father and take me to the Prince's castle."
"Very well," replied D'Arque. "We shall ride immediately. Only once I have delivered you to the castle and safely returned will I let my men will let your father go."
Belle did not mistake the steel in his voice. He didn't want any tricks or sudden acts of deceit.
"I understand," replied Belle before following him towards his black horse, ignoring her father's protests.
"Are you sure?" asked D'Arque, stopping once more to look at Belle just before he climbed upon his horse. "The Prince is rumoured to be quite-"
"I am sure," replied Belle firmly as she took hold of D'Arque's hand and pulled herself up onto his horse.
The collector said nothing in response before merely took hold of the reins of his horse.
"Just ride," whispered Belle as she stared into the night and the cobbled road ahead, leading out into the forest. Trying to block out her father's pleading voice, she let her tears run down her face, thankful that they would be indistinguishable from the unforgiving rain which continued to pelt down on them.
"Forgive me Papa."
She did not dare to let herself look back.
Far away, across the other side of the dense forest in a towering castle, a young man was staring a large portrait of a man, woman and child. Smiling in an almost slightly unhinged manner, he lazily turned the dagger he had in his hand over and over.
The Prince sighed dejectedly before turning to face his advisor, who was standing gingerly by the door, hidden in shadow.
"What is it," he slurred.
"Your Highness, we have news from Paris."
"And?" replied the Prince, turning back towards the portrait which weirdly seemed to hold his interest.
"It's your father, sir," said Cogsworth, staring wearily at the dagger in the Prince's hand, which continued to turn in a methodical manner.
"Is he still complaining that I haven't chosen a bride?"
"Is he worried yet again that I might've sired a bastard?"
"Then what is it Cogsworth, spit it out!" bellowed the Prince, turning to glare at Cogsworth, his blue eyes strikingly cold and almost inhuman.
Cogsworth had not meant to have announced the news in such a manner, but the Prince intimidated him to such a degree that he had had no choice.
The Prince simply stared at the old man, his expression completely nebulous, almost devoid of emotion. The jewelled knife in his hand glittered dangerously in the candlelight.
"Is that so," replied the Prince before turning slowly away from his advisor to stare at the painting once more. Cogsworth let out a sigh of relief.
"A funeral will have to be arranged, and his body will be brought back-"
Once again, the Prince interrupted him, his voice flat, sounding almost disinterested.
"Let them conduct the ceremony in Paris. I will not attend."
Cogsworth's eyes widened in astonishment. He knew the young Prince to have shown certain disdain towards his father, but he did not imagine that it was to this degree. This was pure cold heartedness.
"But sir!" he couldn't help but exclaim.
"Is it written somewhere that if I do not attend then I will not inherit his fortune?"
"No, sir but socially-"
"Then I do not see the problem," replied the Prince lightly as he turned to face Cogsworth once more. Seeing his advisor's astonished face, he smirked in response. His obvious shock only seemed to please the Prince even more.
"I am richer and more powerful than any of those so called 'Dukes' in Paris. They wouldn't dare appose me or question my actions. They know perfectly well how much my father and I hated each other. Who knows, perhaps he would be happy to know that I stayed away from his funeral. Heaven knows he was glad that I stayed away from him while he was alive."
Cogsworth could say nothing in response, only gap the young Master.
"Do it, Cogsworth," continued the Prince, his humourless smile disappearing, replaced by an indifferent stare, his blue eyes almost lifeless. "Just get it over and done with."
"Right, of course sir," stammered Cogsworth, hardly believing his ears as he closed the door and proceeded to walk away from the West Wing.
As he turned to walk down the grand staircase, he suddenly heard an excruciatingly loud sound that forced him to stop in his tracks. Something which could only be described as that of a wounded animal roared at the top of its lungs echoed off the walls of the castle. As Cogsworth stood frozen on the spot, the marble floor beneath him seemed to vibrate in response to something being smashed onto the floor.
The Prince's advisor turned to stare down the dark corridor, where the West Wing's doors remained firmly shut. It was only a moment later that he realized that the sound had not been that of a creature, but of the Prince.
Cogsworth sighed and shook his head before walking down the steps.