"Of the first women who came to New Orleans, none of their names are known to us."
( I was inspired to write this story not only because of my love for Beauty and the Beast, but also for American history. I was reading an article about women in early Louisiana and this quote jumped out at me; a story was born! The time frame is very roughly 1750. New Orleans was first chartered in 1721. This is strictly an AU story in which Belle and the Beast/Prince do not exist, but some of the characters do. I like to see it as an alternate version of the Beauty and the Beast story. Laissez le bon temps rouler! Many, many thanks to TrudiRose for beta-reading and for inspiring me to write again.)
Chapter 1: Prologue (Sable's Reprieve)
"Where you going, pretty thing?"
I want that money. I beat you, fair and square. So hand it over.
"What if I say no?"
Then I'll beat you again.
"Have it your way."
She was torn awake again in a sudden jolt. Cold sweat coursed down her brow. Every night she relived her terrible memories, and every night she heard their taunting voices. Five of them against one of her. Two of those voices would never speak again.
Keep telling yourself you didn't kill them with your bare hands. Then maybe you'll believe it.
Now, only the hangman waited for her.
Her familiar, time-worn garments were gone; they had been replaced with an over-large grain sack with holes hastily cut for the head and arms. She'd never realized how soft buckskin was until now.
Worse, there was nothing for her face. Gingerly she touched it again and winced. With no mirror around, she could only guess at the severity of the injuries. What little water they had given her had gone to clean the wounds as best she could. Her ribs and shoulders were afire with pain.
Maman would know what to do. Cut this flower, mix with a little mud and some of that sap, and you'll be better, cherie. Even Bertrand, old Berti with his rough hands…
But Maman was gone. For all she knew, Bertrand was too.
She would not let herself cry. All the tears had fallen for Maman, into the bayou with the mud and the reeds.
Sleep did not come, and her thoughts wandered like fireflies.
An escape would be risky and foolhardy. The first day, ignoring the pain, she had tried the lock, the bars at the narrow window, even the ground itself. Hopeless. She had nothing save for her aching hands and a wooden bowl, and an armed sentry waited outside. If she had by some miracle escaped the brig, she was in the middle of the barracks. In her injured state she was no match for even two or three men.
A hungry mosquito landed on her neck and she promptly swatted it. Even here in the witching hour she was soaked with sweat. The mosquitoes were simply ruthless. No time of year in New France was forgiving, but midsummer was intolerable at best.
This had always been her home, the place some privateer had named Nouvelle-Orleans. Judging by what Maman had told her of the mother country, the name was a cruel joke. This place was a rude cluster of shanties huddled along the sluggish bayou, constantly at war with the mosquitoes, gators, hurricanes, and endless assortment of diseases. Only the garrison itself seemed to suggest it was anything more than a figment of the imagination. The Ursuline nuns had brought proper, unmarried girls from France some time ago to try and offer some civility to the brutish locals.
But you, no, you are not one of them. You are a bastard, an orphan, daughter of the other kind of women they sent here. You are nothing to them.
The words had once been those of others; they were now her own. At twenty-three she was already an old maid.And why not? Even the young men who had approached her at first, at the boarding house or in town, shied away when they discovered what she was.
The ones who didn't usually learned the hard way.
Maybe if Bertrand were still here, the father she never had. He'd look down at her through that bushy beard and offer some encouraging word. I always told your mother you should have been a runner of the woods, just like me. Look at those long legs, just like a hind! Let those fools try and chase her.
She could only wonder where the big trapper was now. Off in the woods, maybe, God only knew where. Trading pelts with the Caddo Indians for dried meat or telling one of his bawdy stories to anyone who would listen. He must have been looking up at the same full moon that floated outside her cell window.
Wherever he was, she hoped he was happy.
Lost in her thoughts of Bertrand, she hadn't noticed the tall figure among the shadows. Out of the corner she finally did see the movement, and pounced to her feet.
"It's all right. I'm not here to hurt you." The voice was kind, fatherly.
"Who are you?" She did not stand down.
He emerged into the watery stream of moonlight. The dark brown habit, high collar and close-cropped hair and beard identified him as a Capuchin priest. His smile was immediate, a bright crescent in the darkness.
"It is usually the case that I have to pray for the souls of the dead. Am I to pray for you too?"
"Father." Her voice sounded creaky, defeated. "Are you here for my last rites?"
"Not last rites." He produced a silver key from beneath his habit. "Just to talk. But I have to ask that you listen first."
The door swung open and she tried to see her vistor clearly. He was the first person she'd seen in a week, aside from the sentry that brought her bread and water. Just for a moment she thought to lunge at him, break a wrist or elbow and take away that beautiful silver key. But he was a man of God, and she hated to think of the consequences. She merely sat on her straw pallet and tried not to look at him.
"Dear child, whatever happened to your face?" He knelt beside her and reached out one hand.
She shrank back as if burned. "It's not bad. I… I lost a fight. The bastards were waiting for me." A snarl crept into her voice, and she was unashamed.
The priest didn't look away. "A fight? Whatever was a young lady like yourself doing in a fight?"
"It's what I do, Father. I've fought for a living for a long time."
An odd look came over his face, then he smiled. "There are many fighters who are servants of the Almighty. No doubt you have been told of Jeanne la Pucelle?"
It was her turn to look surprised. She was silent for a moment. "Maman did tell me about her once. She said she was a great warrior, a woman who carried a sword and lance in the name of God."
He nodded. "Indeed she was. You know, Jeanne herself once set free the old city of Orleans? The one for which this place is named?" She gazed at him without looking away now. "My child, you are her heir, a soldier for the Lord."
"If God sees me as anything at all, Father, it's a murderess."
The snarl was unmistakable this time. Neither spoke.
Finally the Capuchin broke the silence. "What if I told you I could not only offer you a second chance, but maybe a new life? Redemption, perhaps?"
She spat. "I'd say you were either a little too optimistic or a little too crazy."
"I am neither," he answered after a pause, "although I am a man of opportunity. Would you like to hear my offer, or would you rather insult me again?"
"You're not a priest, are you?" she whispered.
"As I said, cherie, only an opportunist. The gallows will not wait. So I hope you will listen, and quickly." He placed the key in her hand now, and watched her steely eyes widen.
"I knew you were a fighter before I came; I heard you are among the very best. In exchange for this," he said, closing her long-fingered hand over the key, "you will come with me. You will do exactly as I tell you. You will not so much as eat a crumb unless I choose to feed you. In fact, you will be no better than the lowliest servant girl." The smile twisted into a smirk.
"Tell me again how this is to my advantage." She turned her gaze to the window. The first hint of dawn's light touched the eastern sky now. It would not be long.
"Ah, I thought you might ask that," he said, stroking his beard. "Cheating death is certainly part of it. But I'm also giving you a chance at a new life, freedom, even, once I have no further need for your…services." The last word came out as a low hiss.
She stood now, her rangy form almost as tall as the strange visitor's. The key she clenched tightly in one fist. She did not want to look at him, even though he had already looked upon her face and not once shuddered. Finally she nodded, almost imperceptibly.
The man who was not a priest smiled again, a radiant grin this time. "We have to hurry. I'm sure that as thick as these sentries may be, they'll catch onto my little ruse before long." He gestured to her.
"After you, sweet one."
Her trembling fingers slid the key into the lock, and the door swung wide. She hesitated, wondering if this were either a strange dream or a cruel trick. Without looking back she spoke. "Why are you doing this? What does it matter to you whether I hang or not?"
"As you so cleverly pointed out, I am not a man of God. I am, however, a man who enjoys worldly things. I also know that the foolish pride of other men can be very profitable. You are going to help me." She could not see, but his wide smile remained.
"I don't even know your real name," said the prisoner.
"You are one of the few who shall know it. Adrien Arseneault, late of Old France, adopted son of New France, and one hell of a survivor, at your service. Of course, you will be in mine. How ironic."
"Now come. I can tell you all you need to know along the way," he said, stepping past her out of the cell.
"The way where?" she insisted. "I haven't even told you my name."
"To France, my dear, the old country. A place I won't be recognized so easily. I suggest you leave your old name behind; I doubt you'll ever come back to this place anytime soon. What do you think of 'Zibeline,' sable one? I think it suits you." He smiled.
She took the next step out of her cell and into her new life.