Learning to Love
"The hardest thing you'll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return."
Chapter 1 – A Princess in Solitude
Once upon a time, in a far away land, a young princess lived in a shining castle. Although she had everything her heart desired, the princess was spoiled, selfish and unkind.
Princess Alexandrina had her uncle at his wits end again. As King of France, he should be above dealing with a stubborn and recalcitrant little brat. But no, the problem of little Alix was squarely in his lap once again. It was not that she actively went out to cause trouble; she was far more insidious than that. Ever since her parents had been killed, over a year ago, she had ended up in his care and he been doing his best to turn her into a proper young woman. The ten-year-old princess, however, had other ideas. She rarely showed up for any of her lessons and her tutors spent much of their time hunting for the girl. Sooner or later, she would be discovered hidden behind the curtains in the library or curled up behind a haystack in the stable. She was never rude, never lost her temper; she just smiled sweetly at the irritated men and women and asked them to please go away, she had no interest in learning anything they had to teach her.
Today was simply the straw that broke the camels back. The Queen had decided to accompany Alexandrina to her lessons, which meant the girl had no choice but to attend. Her Majesty watched with narrowed eyes as Alexandrina, who was usually so graceful, stepped on her dancing master's toes until they were black and blue. The narrowed eyes intensified as the princess spilled ink all over the poor man assigned to impart in her the basics of knowledge that a princess would expected to know. And by the tenth time Alexandrina gave the incorrect answer as to how a princess should address a Vicomte, the poor Queen gave up and dragged the princess before the King. His Majesty gave her a stern lecture on proper behavior, and then sent her to her room with an escort of five royal guards. Alix went almost happily; glad to be excused from her singing lessons later that afternoon.
"I don't care what you do with the girl," the Queen said to her husband, verging on tears, "But I will not allow her to remain at this court. She has frightened away, to my count, twelve tutors, eight lady's maids and nearly forty noble girls who were simply trying to be kind." The King opened his mouth to say something, but his wife would not give him the chance. "I understand that she is grieving, but this cannot go on. She is giving us a bad name and what sort of bride will we be able to find for our son if word gets out that the women at court behave so badly?"
"What do you propose we do then, my dear?" the King answered with a heavy sigh.
"Send her away," answered the Queen decisively. "The summer castle near the Swiss border, Le Château du Lac. It has not been used in ages, she can live there."
"I promised my dead brother that I would take care of her," the King said doubtfully.
"And so you will," answered the Queen soothingly. "I don't propose we send her alone; she will have a full staff of servants who will be more than capable of looking after a girl of her age."
"And her tutelage?"
"Give her a few months alone out there to get over her grief and appreciate being alone. She'll develop an appreciation for companionship there and, when we check on her in the summer, she'll be far more pliable and willing to do as we wish in order to return home."
The King stroked his well-groomed beard. "I see no real problems with your plan, my darling. She is a troublemaker, to be sure, but she is young. You may be right; some months of solitude might be just the answer."
And not even two weeks later, Princess Alexandrina found herself being bundled into a carriage with a large and rather imposing woman graced with the large and rather imposing name of Madame de la Grande Bouche. She was to serve as head maid for the Princess Alexandrina. Parading out behind them were several other carriages, filled with everything and everyone the Queen thought a young princess would need in exile. Alix stared morosely out the carriage window, pretending to be perfectly uninterested as her life was cheerfully arranged around her to make the young princess as little of a problem as she could be.
The trip through France took nearly a fortnight. Alexandrina had discovered a new game. If one does everything one is supposed to, but with a slightly devious smile on one's face, it had almost as good an effect on those around one as actually misbehaving. Every night Madame de la Grande Bouche went to sleep with the hope that she will not awaken to find frogs or lice in her bed and those were the least egregious of the Ten Plagues which could have shown up. Cogsworth, who was the new head of household, confronted his new mistress sometime during the second day of travel and left the interview so shaken that he actually touched alcohol that night in order to soothe his troubled mind. He did not actually drink it, mind you, but he gesticulated wildly with the glass as he attempted to clarify what was so terrifying about the little girl.
It was not, as he explained, that she was scary. But he had seen many children in his life and never before had he laid eyes on a creature so cold and withdrawn. And when he, in his pompous but good-hearted way, had tried to be kind to her and not treat her as just a faraway mistress, she sweetly asked him if he was so unaware of his role that he needed to ask a ten-year-old what to do?
There was some good-natured amusement at Cogsworth's expense, especially by the maitre'd Lumiere, but no one else seemed anxious to approach the young girl and see what she said to them. There was something eerie about a child so young who was so capable of wounding others. They whispered behind her back; the stories of her tragedy and anguish circling like wildfire.
One by one, the women of her household tried to befriend the lonely little girl and, one by one, she pushed them all away. By the time they reached the palace, even Madame de la Grande Bouche had given up on trying to reach her. Alexandrina had a heart of stone and a will of iron and no interest whatsoever in letting anyone become important to her ever again.
But then, one winter's night, an old beggar-woman came to the castle and offered her a single rose, in return for shelter from the bitter cold.
Time passed slowly in the Château du Lac. Alexandrina spent her time exploring the castle and the lands beyond. She could often be found out riding, with her hair loose in the breeze and her eyes wild with joy. If asked, she would say that she was happier alone, without needing anyone or letting anyone need her. But she was never asked.
The library was also a source of entertainment for her. Alexandrina read voraciously, devouring all the books she could get her hands on. She would read almost anything, but had a special fondness for the histories and the ancient worlds that they described. They were a home in which she could completely lose herself which bore no resemblance to her own. Lost thousands of years before she was born, they held no danger for her.
It was nearing midnight, one cold night in February, when there came a hesitant knock on the door. Alexandrina was sitting down in the servant's kitchen, where the fire burned merrily and the scones were plentiful. When she had first begun this practice, Madame de la Grande Bouche tried to dissuade her and convince Alexandrina that princesses did not sit in the kitchens. Alexandrina listened politely and then informed Madame de la Grande Bouche that since she, Alexandrina, was a princess and was clearly sitting in the kitchen, princesses did, in fact, sit there and reminded her that ladies maids did not correct their mistresses and, if Madame continued to do so, she would not remain a ladies maid for long.
The fire had burned down low and the teapot at Alexandrina's side, left there kindly by the head cook, had long since stewed to the point where it was undrinkable. Alix, however, was entirely engrossed in her exploration of ancient Greece through the eyes of her new role model, Odysseus. That was the reason she did not hear the gentle knock on the door. By the third knock, which sounded more like a thunderbolt from Zeus himself, Alix was fully aware that someone was outside the servant's entrance. She sat back and waited in hope that one of the myriad servants that crept around the castle like industrious ants would come and get the door. They didn't.
Alix stretched her legs and put her feet back into her fur-lined slippers. She was going to go wake up one of the sleeping servants when an idea struck her. This was, after all, her castle. There was no reason she should need any of them to open a door for her.
The person outside had not stopped hammering on the door and the sound was beginning to give Alix a headache. She stomped, as best as she could in fuzzy slippers, over to the door and, with a great effort, unbolted it. With all her eleven years worth of strength, she heaved the great oaken door open and glared unkindly at the stooped old woman shivering before her.
"What do you want?" Alexandrina demanded in her best Princess voice, clutching her thick, woolen dressing-gown closer to try and keep out the bitter winter chill.
"A warm place to stay for the night," answered the old woman, teeth chattering. "I've been out here for far too long and I fear I will not survive the night without shelter."
Alexandrina drew herself up to her full height, which put her an inch over the stooped crone and looked into her wizened face. "Why should I help you?" she asked the old woman in a soft voice.
"I will give you this rose," answered the old woman, producing a perfect red blossom from beneath her tattered robes. Alix stared at it, spellbound. She had never seen a flower of such perfect beauty. The red of the rose was as pure as the color could be and she thought she could actually see dewdrops glittering like diamonds on the petals. And then she pulled away, angry that she had even been taken in.
Repulsed by her haggard appearance, the princess refused the gift and turned the old woman away. But she warned her not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty is found within.
"For that rose, I will be generous," Alexandrina answered with what would have been a snarl in a more frightening creature. "The stables are just around the corner. I'm sure you can sneak in and spend a comfortable night in the hay with the horses."
"Lady, I don't have the strength to take another step, I beg you to-"
"To what? Let you into my home, my life? Why should I allow a hideous creature like you into this castle? What worth do you have, you stupid hag?" Alix was tired and angry and her only experience with cold in her life had been some snowball fights with her parents before their death. She knew little about the icy chill of winter and the dangers of frostbite. Like the mythical beasts and enchantresses she read in her books, she thought such things like dying from the cold were the inventions of creative writers.
"You judge my worth by my beauty?" the old woman asked.
"No, I judge your worth by how useful you are to me. You can't give me anything, anything at all!"
"Such a sad, lonely, child," the witch crooned. "You could be happy by now, you know. You do not need to be locked away in this cold and lonely castle with no friends and no one who cares. But you decided you wanted it that, way, didn't you?"
Alix stared at the old woman, mesmerized by her voice. "Your parents died so you shut yourself away and decided you would never have human companionship again is that it?"
Alix gasped. "How do you…who are you?"
And when she dismissed her again, the old woman's ugliness melted away to reveal a beautiful enchantress. The Princess tried to apologize, but it was too late, for she had seen that there was no love in her heart.
"Why," said the old woman, "I am nothing, worthless, unable to give you anything at all." As the woman spoke, she seemed to grow in height, rising up until she towered above Alexandrina by at least three feet. Her ragged cloak blew out behind her in a gust of warm wind and the air itself shimmered as the decrepit old hag transformed into the most beautiful woman Alix had ever seen. Her hair was long and honey blond, making Alix's own golden locks seem dull as dross by comparison. Her eyes shown verdant, like emeralds, and her gown appeared to have been sewn from the misty green foam of the sea and it danced around her in waves.
Alexandrina may not have paid that much attention during her lectures, but she knew power when she saw it. "Forgive me, I didn't know!" she whimpered, falling to her knees. "I had thought enchantresses were myths and fairy tales, if I had known who you were, I would have never-"
"Never what?" interrupted the enchantress in a voice as clear and cold as glass. "Never thrown out a poor, old woman on a dangerous night like this. I am an enchantress, as you guessed, what need have I for your pitiful hospitality?"
"Then why were you here?"
The enchantress laughed. "Rumors of a sad and suffering princess had reached my ears and I came to see what I could do for her. Yet it is no sad and suffering princess that I find, but an arrogant, royal brat with no thought for anyone but herself and no interest in anything but being left alone. You wish to be away from all humans, is that it?"
"No!" Alix protested, sobbing and clutching at the enchantress's gown. "You said you could help me, can you please help me? Can you give me back my parents, please?"
The enchantress looked down at her with a stony gaze. "Why should I take pity on you?" she asked coldly. "You made your bed, now lie in it. Henceforth, there will be no human presence in this castle. And she clapped her hands together with a sound like thunder.
As punishment, she transformed her into a hideous beast and placed a powerful spell on the castle and all who lived there.
Alexandrina screamed as the spell took hold. It was surprisingly painless, watching her hands lengthen and cover themselves with dark brown fur. She felt, rather than saw, her nose change shape and two long fangs grow up from her bottom teeth. She tried to get to her feet, but found that there was something wrong with her knees and her back and something long and swishy kept getting in the way. She grabbed the tail angrily then howled in pain as she realized it was now a part of her. Alix dropped to all fours and ran through the castle, destroying everything she could find in her rampage.
All over the castle, servants were awakening to find themselves in the most peculiar of predicaments. Lumiere was, by far, the worst off. He had become a candelabrum and was currently engaged in putting out the flaming mess that his new hands had created out of his silk bed sheets. He would later be grateful that his amour was not present at the time, for the feather duster might have been burnt as well.
Cogsworth was panicking, simply because it was really the only natural reaction upon being turned into an enchanted object. He was running around, ticking madly and trying to find a way to open a door with a handle that was now three feet above his head.
There were screams and shouts coming from all four corners of the place. The souse chef was flaming mad to have woken up as a broiler and even the usually unflappable Madame de la Grande Bouche was causing quite the commotion while she lumbered around Alexandrina's rooms as a wardrobe and tried to find a mirror to look into that was not now part of her body. She got one good look at herself before Alix came racing in.
Ashamed of her monstrous form, the Beast concealed herself inside her castle with a magic mirror as her only window to the outside world.
By the time Alexandrina was done, there were no pictures or mirrors left in the castle. She had destroyed them all, either by shattering them with her powerful paws or tearing through them with tooth and nail. She wanted to erase every memory of what was before, everything that could remind her that her solitude was not of her own devising and not perfectly normal. She would not harm any of the people, though. The thought of destroying them all had occurred to her once, but she was not a killer and still saw each and every enchanted object as a servant. Her parents had spent nine long years ingraining into her that servants were there to be used, not abused. And even in her greatest anger, she had never raised a finger against someone in her employ—she could not without hearing her mother's voice lecturing her and breaking down into sobs. So while she would ignore them and hate them, she could not hurt them.
After her magnificent destruction of anything and everything she could find, the princess retreated to her bedroom in the West Wing. Resting on an end table, by the balcony, was a hand held mirror that Alix did not remember owning. She picked it up in order to destroy that one too, but a chillingly familiar voice stopped her.
"I wouldn't do that, if I were you," said the Enchantress.
"Where are you?" Alix asked, spinning around wildly in search of the woman. "Why can't I see you?"
"Look in the mirror." Alix did as she was bade, albeit slowly for she dreaded to see her own visage. It was not her own face that stared out at her, however, but that of the enchantress. "This is my first gift to you," said the enchantress. "This mirror has the power to show you anything in the world, anything you should ever wish to see. It will allow you to keep track of all that you wish without ever setting foot outside these castle walls."
Alexandrina raised her fist to shatter it anyway. "And it's unbreakable," the enchantress added. "Just in case your beastly strength becomes too much for you."
Alix dropped it on the ground, a small spark of hope still present that it would shatter after all, but she had no such luck. She began to walk slowly away.
"My second gift," continued the enchantress, "Is this rose." Alexandrina turned around helplessly to gaze at the flawless flower that had first drawn her in. "Let it serve as a reminder to you of the beautiful outside world which you have rejected. This rose is truly an enchanted rose, which will bloom until your twenty-first year. If you can learn to love another and earn his love in return by the time the last petal falls, then the spell will be broken. If not, you will be doomed to remain a beast for all time."
And then the enchantress was gone, as surely as if Alexandrina had seen her walk out of the room.
Alix roared in pain, shaking as she stared at the glass-covered rose. She was so angry at the witch for giving her this terrible way out and this end to her solitude. She did not want to learn to love anyone. And yet the small seed of hope had already been planted in her heart, and was plaintively asking if maybe falling in love was not so bad after all. And she wondered if she would ever even have a chance to find out.
As the years past, she fell into despair and lost all hope. For who could ever learn to love a beast?
A/N – I am, clearly, not the first person to have ever had this idea. Nor is this the first time I have ever switched the gender roles in Beauty and the Beast. Nor will it be the last time, if one of the novels I'm working on ever sees the light of day. Those, however, are non-Disney versions of the tale. (shameless plug)The link to my first treatment of the tale, Eva's Roses, is on my profile page(/shameless plug).
The inspiration for this came from a thread on the BatB fanforum, Bittersweet and Strange. If you have yet to discover that, go to the following http://z6. bittersweetstrange/index. php?actidx except without the spaces. Two members there, Trudirose and Nyxity, were discussing a version of beauty and the beast with the genders switched that would actually explore how the story would/could happen differently. That is to say, not just switching the words he and she, but actually trying to tell a new tale as old as time. So this is my attempt to do just that.
A couple of notes first.
1) I don't think blaming parental death for the beast's problems was originally my idea, but I don't know where it is from. If anyone can figure out where I might have picked it up from, do let me know.
2) Naming the Beast Alexandrina is a nod to Bittersweet and Strange. If you get it, excellent! If you don't, go read the RP going on there.
3) My beast can read and, more importantly, is capable of doing so. While the scene in Human Again was adorable, I didn't really think it made all that much sense. (he's a prince, why in heaven's name can't he read!?) So my Beast is a bit of a bookworm.
There will probably be this sort of explanation at the end of each chapter (for one thing, "Gastonette" might be a bit confusing if I don't clarify). Until then, adieu and, as always reviews are much appreciated and are food for the authorian soul (kinda like this box of cheez-its I'm currently devouring).