Disclaimer: This story is based on Disney's Beauty and the Beast, which of course I do not own any part of.
The little girl laughed as her father swung her around and around. She was in her pure white night shift, trimmed with lace, all ready for bedtime. But first, there was a special ritual to enact.
"All right, my sweet one. What shall the story be tonight?" He laid her gently on her mattress.
"Papa!" the child laughed as she snuggled down under her handmade quilt, "You ask me the same thing every night!"
He laughed as well, tucking her floppy rag doll in beside her. Stroking her cheek gently with one finger, he said, "And every night you give the same answer. But remind your old father once again: what story do you want to hear tonight?"
"Oh, Papa, don't be so silly. You know what story! The story. The best story in the world."
At this, her father knew his cue to give in. "Very well, my daughter. But are you certain you will be awake for the end? It's already quite late, and your Mama will…"
He laughed again, and she settled down at the deep, soothing sound of his voice as he began.
Now you must remember that this story takes place in a different age than the one you were born into. An age of heroes, it was, and also an age of villains. It was a time when every man and woman needed every ounce of courage they possessed.
For our great country of America was at war, brother against brother. North against the South. It doesn't matter, for this story, why the war started. It only matters that terrible things were happening all around. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
This story really begins several years before the war broke out. There was a certain Georgian plantation owner who had inherited from his parents a vast amount of land at a very young age. This inheritance included hundreds of African slaves to do the work of keeping the plantation and its manor house running. But because they were slaves, they were not permitted to contradict their master's orders. The boy grew up spoiled in every way possible, and he gradually became very selfish and cruel as well. He would beat his slaves for no reason, and he would squander money for fine clothes to impress the ladies of the town that lay several miles from the plantation house. Though he had everything he could ever want simply handed to him, he was quite unhappy because he always had the smallest whispering feeling that there was something missing in his life. So he sought to bury himself in pleasures and forget about this nagging unhappiness. Thus he lived his wasteful life until he became a young man.
One winters' night there was a terrible storm with thunder and lightning. All of the slaves were outside in the dark and cold and rain, trying desperately to keep the animals and the crops safe, for the little creek that ran through the plantation had broken its banks and there was water everywhere. So it happened that that night the young owner was alone in the house, reading a book by candlelight, drinking fine wine, and paying no attention to the danger of those under him.
He noticed that the bottle of wine beside him had all been drained and called for more wine, but there was no answer. The whole of the household staff was outside in the storm.
The young man called again, angrily, but there was no reply. Hefting the whip that he always carried on his belt, he headed for the kitchen to demand that the slaves refill his wine bottle.
The kitchen was deserted. The young man stood in the doorway, feeling oddly lonely. A new feeling for him in a household usually full of obedient servants, but he did not give himself time to ponder. He was about to turn and go back to his book when he noticed a small light at the back of the kitchen.
"Here," he said, starting towards it and holding out the wine bottle, "get me some more…" He stopped. By the dying fire was not a slave man or woman, as he had expected, but a hunched and tattered old figure in a concealing cloak warming its pale, glistening-wet hands. It started at the sound of his voice a leaped backwards; from this reaction the young man judged perhaps the cloaked figure was female. "Who are you," he demanded coldly, "and what are you doing in my house?"
"Forgive me, sir, but I lost my way in the storm. Your servants told me that I could come into the kitchen for a few moments and get warm," a frightened woman's voice croaked.
The young man glared. "They neglected to inform me, the master of this house."
"Perhaps, sir, they had no time, being occupied…"
"They will have their punishment for that, when the time comes," the owner continued, as if the intruder had not spoken at all. "Well, you have officially worn out your welcome here. Leave at once."
"But, sir, please…the storm is terrible. At least let me stay the night and travel on in the morning. I won't trouble you at all, and I can pay. I have only a little with me, but perhaps it will suffice…?" Trembling hands reached out, and the master heard the jingle of a few coins.
He sighed. "I want none of your money. I only want you to get out and leave me in peace!"
"Please, sir," she begged, "Have pity on a poor woman like me. Let me stay here by the fire, at least for a few hours until the storm drops a bit…"
"Why are you so persistent? I told you to get out. Now get out." The young man turned away to go back to the parlor.
"Wait. Do not walk away from your folly so lightly." The voice was stronger, with more authority, but the young man had reached the limit of his patience.
He turned back to her with a sneer. "What folly? I am the master here. I ordered you to leave at once. I am not going to say so again."
He didn't even realize what the strange woman had done until his head hit the floor with a painful crack. He yelled in pain, but could not lift a hand to put it to his aching head. Somehow, he was completely unable to move, only lie helplessly like an old rag on the wooden floor as the figure stood up straight. Slowly she pushed back her cloak, which draped gracefully down her back. Beneath it he could see a long, plain white silk gown that shimmered in the occasional flash of lightning from the windows, and wavy golden hair reaching to her waist. And her face…
He gasped with the shock of recognition. "Mother?"
She looked at him out of cool, unreadable eyes. "And to think I came all this way to visit my only child, and he turns me out of my own house like a common criminal," she remarked, in an almost conversational fashion. Her eyes flicked away, just briefly, as if to hide emotion.
"Forgive me, Mother," he pleaded, "If I had known…"
"That," she spat, her face suddenly menacing, "should make no difference. Had your father or I had time to raise you properly, you would have learned young that compassion and empathy must always be first in your heart, not appearances. As it is, there is but one thing I can do for you. Perhaps the damage can still be undone; you are my son, after all, and you cannot be devoid of all feeling."
Fear coursed through the young landowner's limp body like icy lightning. "Wha-what are you going to do to me?" he stammered.
"That, you will never know, unless you manage to free yourself." For the first time, there was some emotion besides anger in her pale, beautiful face. He tried his best to interpret her expression by the flashes of lightning still streaking the sky outside: pity? regret? or…sorrow? She continued: "And in order to be free forever, you must find what you are lacking: love. You must find a young woman to love you as you are, and learn to love her in return. Only that will allow to you regain your true form."
"My true form?" The helpless man on the floor was truly frightened now. "What are you going to do to me? Mother, please…have mercy…give me another chance…"
"This is your chance, my son. It may be your last. Use it wisely." The white figure advanced towards him, one hand outstretched. He felt a cold touch, cold as death, on his forehead. There was a brilliant flash of lightning from outside, followed instantly by a roar of thunder that rattled the shutters of the plantation house. The world around him winked out like a guttered candle. He knew no more for some time.
Author's Note: Hi everybody! I'm back with a vengeance! One of my other pastimes (in addition to studying Japanese) is Civil War reenacting, and history in general. Please try not to judge this new AU Beauty and the Beast fic too harshly, by which I mean don't hold it too close to my previous story "Nightingale", and give this one a chance to stand on its own. The story promises to be darker in tone than the last, but I hope that it will be just as entertaining to my readers.
As for updates, I can make no promises. I had a lot of free time this summer to write "Nightingale" that, tragically, is no longer mine to enjoy. Just trust that I will never abandon the story completely, and bear with me. Pretty please?