December 2nd, 1751
"Belle, there's a couple of kids your age outside. Why don't you go out and play with them?"
Belle set aside her book and crossed the enormous drawing room to look out of the large bow window her father was peering out of. A trio of young boys were chasing each other up and down the street.
"Those are boys, Papa!" she exclaimed, a look of disgust crossing her face.
"Boys aren't all bad, Belle," said Maurice, frowning. "I used to be one, you know."
As Belle tried to imagine her balding, white-haired, moustachioed father as a boy her age, a well-dressed, elegant middle aged woman with curly silver hair and a waxen complexion came bustling into the room carrying a tray of bread, cheese, and milk.
"I brought you two some lunch," she said, placing the tray down on a table in the middle of the large drawing room.
"Ah, you are very kind, Madame St. Pierre," said Maurice, beaming. He set down the square of glass paper he had been using to sand down a slab of wood and walked over to the table. "Belle, come and eat."
"Are you almost done?" asked Madame St. Pierre, glancing over at the half-finished cabinet in the corner of the room.
"Not even close," said Maurice. "I will probably have to come back tomorrow to finish it."
"Oh no, you have to have it finished by tomorrow," gasped Madame St. Pierre. "I promised my husband that it would be done by the time he returns home from Marseille, and he is due back tomorrow morning. I don't care if it takes you all night. I'll pay you extra if I have to."
"We really can't stay that long," said Maurice, frowning. "Belle needs to be in bed by nine."
"Then you'd better hurry up then," said Madame St. Pierre curtly. She turned on her heel and stalked out of the room.
"I'm sorry, Belle," Maurice sighed, turning back to the half finished cabinet.
"That's okay, Papa," said Belle, downing an entire roll of bread in one gulp. "Do you want me to help? We could probably get it done faster if we worked together."
"Thank you for the offer, little doe, but small hands don't belong around hammers and saws," said Maurice. "Just sit there and read your book."
It was almost midnight by the time Maurice had finished making the cabinet. Belle had already fallen asleep on the settee, with her book lying on her face and Maurice's coat covering her tiny, delicate body.
"Wake up, little doe. We have to go now," Maurice whispered, gently patting his daughter's cheek.
Maurice packed his tools up, pocketed the money that Madame St. Pierre had left lying on the kitchen table and he and Belle set off on their journey home. Maurice gripped his daughter's tiny hand tightly as they navigated their way through the streets of Paris.
Maurice had been working almost non-stop for a couple of months now. Prior to her death, Sofia had managed to support them almost single-handedly. Maurice had felt guilty allowing his wife to support him, but she had insisted on it so that he could spend more time working on his inventions. They had lived quite comfortably on the money she earned. Now, taxes were rising and so was the average price of a loaf of bread. Maurice often had to work all day and well into the night in order to make enough money to support both Belle and himself. It was exhausting and he had little time for himself, but it was all worth it when Belle crawled into his arms when they sat by the fire after dinner each night.
He would usually take Belle along with him whenever he went to do carpentry work in one of his neighbours' houses. She would sit quietly in a corner, reading a book as he worked. In a year or two, Belle would be old enough to start staying home on her own, though the mere idea of his little daughter being on her own for an entire day made Maurice feel uneasy. There was no telling what could happen if he left her home by herself. The thought of losing his daughter just as he had lost Sofia tore him up inside. She was the only thing that got him out of bed in the morning. Belle was nine years old now, though she was so small she could easily pass for six or seven. He'd tried to convince himself that this was merely the result of the traits she had inherited from her parents. Sofia had had a thin, delicate body and he was just a little over four foot eight himself. But even Sofia hadn't been this thin on her deathbed.
Belle's weight perturbed Maurice more than anything else. It didn't make any sense. He made sure she ate three meals a day. He always had the exact same amount of food as her and he was still as chubby as ever. Something else had to be causing Belle's weight loss. Maurice's own physical appearance had also radically changed over the past few months. A year ago, he'd had a head full of chestnut brown hair. Now, not only was it completely white, but he was going bald as well. He looked a good ten years older than he really was. Maurice had, however, fulfilled Sofia's dying request and grown a moustache for her.
By the time they finally arrived home, Belle could barely keep her eyes open.
"Now, it's off to bed with you, little doe," ordered Maurice gently, pointing towards the staircase.
"No bedtime story?" asked Belle, disappointed.
"You're getting a bit old for bedtime stories," said Maurice, raising an eyebrow. "You've been reading on your own since you were three."
"But I like being read to even more!" insisted Belle. "I can lie back and focus my energy on picturing the characters in my mind."
"Fine, fine, I'll read you," Maurice said, chuckling. "Go upstairs and get changed into your nightgown and I'll be there in a moment."
"I need to check on Harriette first," said Belle, yawning. "Her trough probably needs filling. It will only take a few minutes."
Belle scampered out the door as Maurice headed down into the cellar to put his tools away. He didn't spend much time in his workshop these days. He just didn't have the time, energy, or heart to work on any of his inventions. His inspiration had died along with Sofia. In fact, lately Belle had been spending more time down there than he was. She was dead-set on continuing her mother's dancing legacy. Maurice had cleared out a section of his workshop and installed a barre so that she had somewhere to practice.
Perhaps it was stress that was preventing Belle from gaining weight. He hadn't seen his daughter play in months. She did nothing but read, study, and practice ballet. If only there was some way he could force her to start having fun again. Belle seemed reluctant to make friends with the other children in their neighbourhood, and he didn't have the time or energy to play with her now.
"Papa!" he heard Belle's voice cry frantically from the living room.
Maurice quickly hurried upstairs where he found Belle standing in the doorway, looking very upset.
"Papa, Harriette's in pain!" she cried, grabbing her father's hand and pulling him out the door and towards the stable. Harriette was lying on her side in the hay, breathing deeply and letting out pained whinnies. Maurice crouched down and felt the horse's stomach.
"No, Belle. It's alright," Maurice said, standing up and smiling at his daughter. "She's just foaling."
"So she's going to have a baby?" asked Belle excitedly.
"That's right," Maurice confirmed. "And from the looks of it, it's going to happen very soon."
"We need to help her, Papa!" cried Belle. "She's in so much pain!"
"I grew up in the countryside," Maurice said calmly, setting himself down on a bale of hay in the corner of the stable. "I've seen more than my share of horse births. It is best we let her deal with it on her own."
Maurice couldn't help but feel ashamed of himself. He had been so busy working and dealing with Sofia's death that he hadn't even noticed that Harriette was pregnant. He had put Belle in charge of feeding her and keeping her stable clean so he hadn't had much contact with her.
"This reminds me of the day you were born," Maurice said, as Belle settled on his lap. "Your mother was in labour for eighteen hours. I was so nervous I couldn't even sit down. I just wish I could have been allowed in the room to see you come into the world. The sight of your mother holding you in her arms for the first time is still the most beautiful thing I have ever seen."
"That doesn't sound fair, Papa," said Belle, frowning. "I'm your child too. Why couldn't you be there too?"
"That's just the way the world works," said Maurice, shrugging.
"Papa?" Belle asked, turning her head around to look at her father.
"You know babies? And how they grow in their mother's stomach?"
"Yes?" Maurice did not like where this was going.
"How do they get in there?"
Maurice's face turned bright red. He had assumed that Sofia had already sat down with Belle and discussed the more personal and private aspects of life with her. This was a conversation a young girl should be having with her mother, not her father. He barely knew anything about the female body.
"Your mother never told you?" he asked.
"She said I was too young to know," Belle said, staring up at her father innocently.
"W-well, your mother and I... I mean, a man and a woman have to-" Maurice stammered, his face growing even redder with every word that he said.. "Your mother was right. You are too young."
Two hours later, a tiny foal with thin brown fur, a short golden mane, and a long white stripe down its face lay next to its mother, its head resting on its exceedingly long front legs.
"Is it a boy or a girl?" Belle asked, reaching out to scratch the newborn foal behind its ears.
Maurice quickly checked beneath its legs.
"It's a boy."
"A boy," Belle groaned, disappointed. The last thing the world needed was more boys!
The little foal lifted his head up and blinked his enormous brown eyes at her. Belle quickly forgot her disappointment and beamed back at him. The baby horse carefully positioned its hooves and pushed itself upright. Belle giggled as she watched the newborn colt stumble around the stable on his four long, spindly legs.
"Belle, I have some bad news. Remember what happened to Madame Patenaude down the street?" asked Maurice quietly.
"She died giving birth to little Fernande," said Belle before a look of realisation crossed her face. "Oh no, Papa. Y-you don't mean that Harriette-"
Maurice nodded solemnly.
"Oh, Papa," Belle wailed, pressing her face into Maurice's chest.
"Don't cry, Belle," whispered Maurice, stroking his daughter's hair soothingly. "Everyone has to go sometime, even horses."
"But what about her poor little colt?" asked Belle tearfully. "He's motherless now!"
"Well, we will just have to take extra good care of him, won't we?"
Belle wiped away her tears and nodded.
"I feel like we have a connection already," she said. "I know what it's like to lose your mother. I'm going to play with him and take care of him and-"
"You can do all that tomorrow. It's way past your bedtime, young lady," said Maurice firmly.
"But he needs me!" insisted Belle, hugging the little horse's neck.
"I won't leave his side, I promise," Maurice told her.
Belle took one last look at the horse and reluctantly exited the stable and went upstairs to bed, where she fell asleep as soon as her head touched the pillow. The next morning, she leapt out of bed and, without bothering to change out of her nightgown, ran down to the stable where she found her father feeding the little colt with one of her old baby bottles. Harriette's body had been removed. All that remained of her was an old saddle hanging on the wall.
"Can you teach me how to ride him, Papa?" Belle asked as she stroked the little colt's back.
"In a few years, Belle," said Maurice. "He's not strong enough for it yet."
"I'm going to name him Philippe after Philip Sidney. Astrophel and Stella was one of the last books Mama and I read together," Belle told her father. "Plus, phil means love in ancient Greek. I can't think of a more perfect name for someone I already love so much."
For the next few weeks, Belle spent almost every moment of her spare time with Philippe. She would spend hours feeding him, playing with him, and grooming him. She would read to him every night before she went to bed. To Maurice's relief, Belle slowly began to gain weight again. He hadn't seen Belle this happy in over a year. Later that month, Belle and Maurice celebrated their first Christmas since Sofia's death. Belle proudly presented a book of poems she had written to her father. Maurice gave his daughter a small headcollar and a rope. Belle used it to take Philippe for long walks through the streets of Paris.
"When we get bigger, Philippe," she said to him as she was feeding him one night. "We will travel all over the land together. Just you and me. And Papa too, if he wants to come."
February 19th, 1752
The Beast wiped the blood from his mouth and looked down at the mangled carcass of the stag he had just caught as felt a sudden wave of shame and disgust come over him. Every night he gave into his animalistic urges and went out to hunt in the forest. He could feel himself becoming more of a monster and less of a human being everyday. The servants prepared delicious, aromatic meals for him, but his stomach rejected the food and made him ill. He had no choice but to feast on raw, bloody, freshly killed animal meat.
"Happy birthday, Master."
The Beast turned around to see Mrs Potts sitting in the doorway. He scowled at her. He had almost gone the entire day without being reminded of his birthday. He was thirteen years old. He had exactly eight years until his twenty-first birthday, when the curse would be made permanent and he would be a beast forever, no matter what happened.
"Don' remind me," he snapped.
Mrs Potts frowned and hopped towards the Beast. Unlike the rest of the servants, she didn't live in fear of him. In fact, she was the only one who could get him to calm down whenever he flew into a rage. It wasn't because she was particularly brave or daring. The Beast that ruled the castle with an iron fist was the same little boy who used to fall asleep in her arms, and that is who she saw whenever she looked at him.
"You're never going to get a girl to fall in love with you with that attitude," she told him.
"That's never going to happen anyway," murmured the Beast quietly.
"You mustn't give up hope, Master," said Mrs Potts soothingly.
"Watch this," the Beast ordered. He stomped over to a small table by the window and picked it up. "Show me the person who will break the curse," he ordered.
The mirror's image did not change. The Beast's reflection continued to stare back at him, almost as if the mirror was taunting him.
"See?" the Beast said, showing Mrs Potts the mirror.
"I don't think the mirror can predict the future, Master," said Mrs Potts.
"Even if a girl did somehow come across the castle, she would never fall in love with me. No one could ever fall in love with me. I'm a monster, not just physically either. I'm destined to be alone forever."
"No, no, there is someone out there for everyone. I think everyone has a soul mate. Every person in the world has someone they are destined to fall in love with, no matter what."
"That's ridiculous!" snorted the Beast.
"Ask it," urged Mrs Potts.
"Ask the mirror to show you your soul mate."
"No! The mere idea is preposterous! I don't believe it for a second."
"Then prove it," dared Mrs Potts.
"Show me my soul mate," the Beast ordered reluctantly.
The mirror emitted a quick green flash before an image appeared on the glass. The Beast peered into the mirror and saw, not a person, but a pile of books sitting on a very small bed. It took a few moments for him to notice a small hand poking out of the blankets. The face of the owner of the hand in question was obscured by a large book. So it was true. He did have a soul mate. There was someone out there who would love him no matter what he looked like. Yet they would most likely never meet.
"What did you see?" asked Mrs Potts.
"Nothing," growled the Beast.
"You're lying to me, Adam."
The Beast threw the mirror down and turned to Mrs Potts. He glared down at her threateningly.
"Don't call me that again!" he snarled. "That is the name of a human being, not a monster."
"You're not a monster, Adam," said Mrs Potts softly. "You're a boy."
"Get out!" the Beast screamed, throwing open the door of his room.
October 5th, 1753
"What's wrong, dear?" asked Theseus. "You've been in a mood all evening."
"The girls spent all day following that boy around," said Ariana, sitting down on the settee next to Theseus. "They're obsessed with him. I'm worried about them, Theseus."
"You worry too much, Ariana," sighed Theseus. "Let them have their fun while they still can."
"I don't want them falling in love with a mortal, Theseus!"
"Ariana, I'm shocked. I thought you were more open-minded than that."
"I just don't want them to get their hearts broken," said Ariana. "Relationships between mortals and non-mortals do not end well. One of my aunts fell in love with a mortal about five hundred years ago. He eventually died of old age and poor Aunt Ilithyia has been nursing a broken heart ever since. Besides, that Gaston boy is a piece of work. All the attention this town is giving him is turning him into a monster. It's a shame, really. He seemed so quiet and shy when he first arrived."
"Don't worry, Ariana. They will forget all about him when they begin their studies," Theseus told his wife. He stood up and strode towards the stairs. "I'm going to bed. Are you coming?"
"I'll be up in a minute," murmured Ariana.
When her daughters had first been born, Theseus had insisted they grow up not knowing of their heritage and of their magical powers. They would be told the truth on their twenty-first birthday, when they finally came of age. That was how he had been raised. Ariana was reluctant at first, but agreed to it, believing that her girls would be safer Now, however, she was beginning to regret it.
After a few minutes had passed, Ariana stood and started walking towards the stairs when a knock at the door stopped her in her tracks. She opened the door to find a handsome, honey blond man in his late-thirties standing on the doorstep.
"Ah, Prince Renaud," said Ariana, smiling. "Come in."
"You recognised me," Renaud said, shocked. He sat down on the settee next to Ariana.
"Of course I recognised you, Your Highness," said Ariana. "You were the prince of this region for nine years."
"It is just Renaud now," he said. "I am no longer a prince."
"I am sorry about that."
"Please don't be," said Renaud. "I am much happier as a common man than I ever was as a prince. I have the freedom to do whatever I please now."
"What brings you here?" asked Ariana.
"What happened to my son?"
"What makes you think I know?" queried Ariana, raising an eyebrow.
"You're not human, are you?" said Renaud. "You have a garden full of plants that don't usually grow in this area, I've never seen anyone in this town read, yet your husband owns a bookshop and you seem to have an endless supply of money, and I saw you heal a hurt wolf with your hands yesterday."
"You're quite astute, Renaud," said Ariana, smiling.
"Three years ago we were travelling through Nevers when we heard about my wife's passing," continued Renaud. "We tried to go back to the castle, but we couldn't find it. It was as if it vanished into thin air. We decided to settle in this town so that I could look further into my son's disappearance I rarely visited this village when I was a prince, so no one – except you – has recognised me. We've forged a nice life here. We've got a couple of chickens, a vegetable garden, an old horse."
"And, if I am not mistaken, another little life will be joining you in the near future."
Renaud's jaw dropped.
"What? Josette hasn't even... How did you-" Renaud spluttered before he finally came to his senses. "If you know that, then you must know what happened to my son. Castles don't just disappear into thin air. "
"I cursed him," said Ariana bluntly.
"With both you and his mother gone, the little prince turned into a tyrant. His servants refused to discipline him, so I transformed him into a beast," Ariana told him.
"What happened to everyone else at the castle?" asked Renaud.
"I cursed them too."
"What? Why would you do that?"
"They let the prince turn into a tyrant. They deserved to be punished just as much as him. You're lucky I didn't find you and curse you as well," said Ariana.
"You had no right to do that to my son!" yelled Renaud, standing up.
"You had no right to abandon him," countered Ariana.
"You're right," acknowledged Renaud. "I regret doing what I did now. But you don't understand. I had too much responsibility and no freedom. I just wanted to live my life."
"So you forced all your responsibilities onto your ten year old son?"
"I won't deny what I did was wrong, but what you did was just plain unfair. He is only a child. You have to change him back!"
"I can't. He has to undo the curse himself," said Ariana. "He must fall in love with someone, and have them fall in love with him, before his twenty-first birthday."
"And how exactly is he going to accomplish that when you've completely hidden his castle from view?" yelled Renaud.
"I have only hidden the castle from you and other members of nobility so that no one with any kind of power will discover him and spread the news all over the country. It is for his own safety. Trust me, he will break this curse, I will make sure of it," Ariana promised. "Now go home, your wife is waiting for you."
The tiny, two bedroom cottage Renaud and Josette now shared in was starkly different from the enormous castle they had grown up in, yet they felt more at comfortable and at home in it than they had anywhere else. Renaud found his wife sitting up in bed, waiting for him.
"It's almost midnight. You should be asleep," he told her.
"What did you find out?" she asked.
"I will tell you tomorrow," he told his wife, cupping her face with his palm. "You need your rest."
"I can't sleep," she said. "I don't think I will ever have a good night's rest again in my life."
"Don't blame yourself, Josie. It was my fault. You let me go, but I just couldn't accept it. I kept going after you, even though I was married with a child. But we shouldn't dwell on the past, we need to look to the future," Renaud told her, touching her stomach gently.
"I still can't believe this is happening," said Josette. "I thought I was barren. We've been making love for over twenty years. Why now?"
"I can't help but get the feeling that you're not happy about this child," said Renaud. "You're worried that what happened to your mother is going to happen to you, aren't you?"
"We don't deserve a child," said Josette. "Not after what we did."
"The deed's been done, Josette," sighed Renaud. "There's no going back now. We should be happy about it. It isn't fair to the child. I don't want to ruin another one of my children's lives. I'm not going to make any mistakes this time, Josie. I was an awful father to Adam. I loved him, but I was never around. Then I abandoned him altogether. This little person is going to have the best father in the world. But that still doesn't excuse what I did to Adam. I'm going to make it up to him one day, Josie. I don't know how, but I will."