To love beauty is to see light.—Victor Hugo
Italian Renaissance, Beauty & the Beast AU. É/E. Written for Les Mis Historical AU Fest.
Everyone knows how the story ends: “They lived happily ever after.”
But how many can say, truly say, that they know how it begins?
“Once upon a time…” is a good beginning for many stories, but for this one?
This is how the story begins…
The year is 1496. It is the era of warring city-states, of dukes and republics, of political intrigue and chaos. It is the era when the condotierri sold their swords to the highest bidder, when Machiavelli learned that is better for a ruler to be feared rather than loved, when a man could become king in all but name if he paid enough gold and spilt enough blood.
It is also the golden age of Milan, Florence, Naples, Venice, Rome. It is the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, of Brunelleschi, of Michelangelo. It is the time of painting and sculpture and architecture. It is the time of beauty and wealth and splendor.
It is the Renaissance, the rebirth, terrible and glorious all at once.
The year is 1946, and in a quiet, sleepy, little estate in the duchy of Milan, there lives a dark-eyed, dark-haired girl who dreams not of a prince or a castle or a crown upon her head, but of new shoes for her brother, of a warm cloak to cover her sister, and of bread to fill her family’s stomachs.
Fortunately for her, most of these things are within her grasp. She works as a lady’s maid for the local merchant’s daughter—the pay is good, her mistress is kind, and, best of all, the job comes with a little room of her own, a safe haven for her and her siblings when her disgrace of a father has drunk his week’s salary.
Life is good enough, so when Éponine Thénardier accompanies her young mistress, Cosette Valjean, to the chapel for daily Mass, she bows her head, says thank you to the Blessed Mother, and doesn’t pray for anything more.
She has lived through enough to understand that you will only be disappointed if you ask.
Her younger sister, Azelma, has not quite learned this lesson yet (and Éponine is working hard to make sure she never will), so when their father asks what he can bring home from this latest trip, she asks for a rosebush to plant in their garden.
“You just have to get a cutting,” she says excitedly. “Just a nice branch—I’ll do the rest of the work, I promise!”
Their father smiles patronizingly and pats her on the forehead; Éponine has to fight not to roll her eyes.
“And you, my dear eldest daughter? What can your beloved papa bring home to you?” he asks.
“Half the coins you earn,” she says sternly, “and in the Lord’s name, please do not get drunk, and do not get kicked out of the caravan. Signor Valjean has given you so many chances as it is.”
“Ha,” her father scoffs, “that old fool is so soft-hearted that he’s practically begging for people to take advantage of him. So long as you stay in his wife and daughter’s good graces, I’ll never be out of a job. Don’t you worry your pretty little head.”
Éponine bites her lip and says nothing in reply, but when the caravan leaves on Friday, she waves farewell to her father with a smile a touch too happy to be seemly.
The weeks pass.
Éponine works hard, cleaning and sewing and mending. She also follows Cosette around like a diligent shadow and throws rocks at the backsides of a few potential suitors (they are far too pompous and arrogant for the likes of Cosette, and she will have to do drive them away in Signor Valjean’s absence).
It’s not all work, though—there is pleasure, too. Signora Fantine Valjean is teaching Éponine how to read and figure, a rare opportunity for a peasant, and rarer still for a woman, but the Valjeans have always been more generous and open-minded than most.
They spend many summer afternoons poring over the household accounts together, Éponine softly mouthing the words and tallying up the numbers. Signora Valjean gives her an approving smile, and Éponine feels as warmed as if she’d spent hours lazing in the sun—her mother has been dead and buried in the churchyard these past three years, so Éponine soaks up the older woman’s regard like the parched land takes in the spring rains.
From across the room, Cosette will give Éponine a teasing nudge now and then, delicate fingers working on her embroidery as Éponine learns her lessons, and as Signora Valjean hums underneath her breath and keeps up her correspondence. The solarium Signor Valjean built for his precious dove and darling lark fills with love and contentment and happiness when the three of them are in it.
At night, Éponine leaves her little room with a basket of good, day-old bread and heads to the dusty house she used to call home. She shares the bread with her siblings, the three of them having a feast using the tomatoes Azelma’s grown in their garden and the olive oil Gavroche has nicked from Signor Gillenormand’s pantry.
Their bellies are full, their faces wreathed with smiles, and their eyes shining with laughter. They go to sleep curled around one another on rickety pallets on the floor, giggling and whispering until sleep claims them with gentle, tender hands.
Éponine is happier than she remembers being for years.
It doesn’t last, of course. It never does, and she shouldn’t have expected it to, but joy blinded her eyes with its brightness.
She pays the price for it.
Of all the things that would bring them to ruin, Éponine never suspected it would be her sister’s request for rose cuttings.
“What do you mean he’s been taken?” Signora Valjean shouts, her composure broken at the news that her husband is apparently being held prisoner by—
By someone or something. The men’s eyes dart away when she demands more details, their faces paling, and a few even cross themselves and mutter a quick prayer to the Blessed Father.
“But why would they take him?” Cosette pleads.
Éponine feels her heart fall to the ground when the other men shift and leave her father standing alone. He comes forward and throws himself at Signora Valjean’s feet. “Signora, I am so sorry,” he cries, sobbing. Éponine can tell from a single glance that he’s faking it and has to resist the urge to kick him away from her mistress’s skirts. “It’s all my fault! We were camped in the woods and I wandered off for some fresh air. I came across a rosebush—you see, I had promised my Azelma, you remember her? My youngest daughter?”
“Yes,” whispers Signora Valjean, “I remember her. She is a good girl, a hard worker like her sister.”
“Yes, yes, they are my precious treasures,” he lies. “And because I love them so, I promised my Azelma that I would bring her a rose cutting if I ever came across one. Just a single rose to brighten her garden and make her smile. How was I to know it was guarded by a monster?”
“A monster?” Éponine says. “Have you been drinking, old man?”
He shoots her glare before letting out another false, pitiful sob. “No, no, it was real! A monster! Tell them!”
The other men shift uneasily and nod. Éponine catches a few whispers of “monster,” “beast,” and “demon,” and she feels a chill go up her spine.
“He picked me up and threatened to kill me for trespassing,” her father continues, “but fortunately, Signor Valjean intervened. He was able to plead for my life in exchange for his own.”
“So you left him there to rot while you saved your own stinking skin? How could you?!” Éponine shouts, torn between rage at her father and horror at the thought of kind, generous Signor Valjean left to the mercies of—of—of some kind of supernatural being.
Everyone knew that demons and devils walked the land, that salt at your windows would keep restless spirits away, and that rosemary over doorways would bring luck to your house. Magic was real and alive, and only fools would cross those who wielded its darker side. Then again, her father never had been particularly intelligent. Cunning, yes, but smart? No.
He cringes at her anger, not daring to yell back when Cosette and her mother are right there.
Signor Valjean looks beseechingly at the other men. “Is there nothing we can do? What is it he wants? Is it gold? Land? Tell me; we’ll give him anything.”
The men wince and look away, but more than a few glance toward Azelma, who stands behind Éponine, hands wringing her skirts in guilt and anxiety.
“The monster wanted the girl,” Babet eventually admits. “A trade, he said. Surely a man who loved his daughter enough to trespass for the sake of a single rose would father a child willing to take his place instead. He said he wanted a…a companion.”
Éponine feels her blood run cold. A companion. There’s only one thing a devil wants a human girl for, and “companion” was a far prettier word for it than “whore.”
“And you said yes?” she asks her father. “You told him you would give him Azelma?”
“I had no choice!” he shouts back.
“You had every choice!” she screams, lunging forward to claw at his face.
Cosette pulls her back, weeping. “No—no, it’s alright. My father wouldn’t have wanted that. He traded his life for her, didn’t he?” she asks, talking through her tears.
The men nod.
Babet says, “The monster said to come back in a week with the girl, or else…”
“Or else we’ll never see Jean again,” Signora Valjean whispers. She closes her eyes for a moment, then opens them determinedly. “Then so be it. My husband gave his life for a worthy cause; I will not let his sacrifice go to waste—”
Everyone turns to face her in shock, but Éponine simply lifts her head and repeats, “Send me.”
“Éponine, what are you doing?” Azelma cries out.
“Saving your life, and Signor Valjean’s life, and our worthless father’s life, too, I suppose. If the monster is so eager to have a companion, he can have me. He didn’t say which daughter it had to be, did it?” she demands.
The caravan workers shake their heads.
“Then I will do as well as Azelma,” she says.
“Éponine, don’t be stupid,” Signora Valjean says harshly. “I would never allow—”
Éponine cuts Cosette’s mother off by dropping to her knees and pressing the back of the lady’s hand to her forehead. “Please,” she says, “please let me repay the debt my family owes you. Please, let me undo the harm my family has done yours. I am young, I am strong, and I go with the purest intentions. Surely the Virgin Mother will keep me safe. Surely the Lord would bless such an endeavor. It’s our best chance.”
Signora Valjean’s face is conflicted, but Éponine sees the exact moment when she accepts her plea. “You’ll just run away and try to free him yourself if we say no, won’t you?” she says, resigned.
Éponine nods cautiously.
Signora Valjean sighs. “Very well. You may go.”
And with those words, the story of an unexpected beauty and a strange beast began.