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The merchant thought he had never seen or smelt such exquisite flowers. They reminded him of his promise to Beauty, and he stopped and had just gathered one to take to her when he was startled by a strange noise behind him. Turning round, he saw a frightful Beast, which seemed to be very angry and said, in a terrible voice:

“Who told you that you might gather my roses? Was it not enough that I allowed you to be in my palace and was kind to you? This is the way you show your gratitude, by stealing my flowers! But your insolence shall not go unpunished.” The merchant, terrified by these furious words, dropped the fatal rose, and, throwing himself on his knees, cried: “Pardon me, noble sir. I am truly grateful to you for your hospitality, which was so magnificent that I could not imagine that you would be offended by my taking such a little thing as a rose.” But the Beast’s anger was not lessened by this speech.

“You are very ready with excuses and flattery,” he cried; “but that will not save you from the death you deserve.”

“Alas!” thought the merchant, “if my daughter could only know what danger her rose has brought me into!”

And in despair he began to tell the Beast all his misfortunes, and the reason of his journey, not forgetting to mention Beauty’s request.

“A king’s ransom would hardly have procured all that my other daughters asked.” he said: “but I thought that I might at least take Beauty her rose. I beg you to forgive me, for you see I meant no harm.”

The Beast considered for a moment, and then he said, in a less furious tone:

“I will forgive you on one condition—that is, that you will give me one of your daughters.”

“Ah!” cried the merchant, “if I were cruel enough to buy my own life at the expense of one of my children’s, what excuse could I invent to bring her here?”

“No excuse would be necessary,” answered the Beast. “If she comes at all she must come willingly. On no other condition will I have her. See if any one of them is courageous enough, and loves you well enough to come and save your life. You seem to be an honest man, so I will trust you to go home. I give you a month to see if either of your daughters will come back with you and stay here, to let you go free. If neither of them is willing, you must come alone, after bidding them good-by for ever, for then you will belong to me. And do not imagine that you can hide from me, for if you fail to keep your word I will come and fetch you!” added the Beast grimly.

The merchant accepted this proposal, though he did not really think any of his daughters could be persuaded to come. He promised to return at the time appointed, and then, anxious to escape from the presence of the Beast, he asked permission to set off at once. But the Beast answered that he could not go until next day.

“Then you will find a horse ready for you,” he said. “Now go and eat your supper, and await my orders.”

The poor merchant, more dead than alive, went back to his room, where the most delicious supper was already served on the little table which was drawn up before a blazing fire. But he was too terrified to eat, and only tasted a few of the dishes, for fear the Beast should be angry if he did not obey his orders. When he had finished he heard a great noise in the next room, which he knew meant that the Beast was coming. As he could do nothing to escape his visit, the only thing that remained was to seem as little afraid as possible; so when the Beast appeared and asked roughly if he had supped well, the merchant answered humbly that he had, thanks to his host’s kindness. Then the Beast warned him to remember their agreement, and to prepare his daughter exactly for what she had to expect.

“Do not get up to-morrow,” he added, “until you see the sun and hear a golden bell ring. Then you will find your breakfast waiting for you here, and the horse you are to ride will be ready in the courtyard. He will also bring you back again when you come with your daughter a month hence. Farewell. Take a rose to Beauty, and remember your promise!”

Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve

A man staggered down the corridor, cradling one arm in the other. His face was bloodied on one side, and dark footprints trailed after him.

Cillian swore. It was Quinn. But he didn’t seem to be carrying a damn thing with him.

A few minutes later, Quinn tumbled to his knees on the threshold. Cillian hauled him the rest of the way through by the collar of his jacket then stepped out into the passage and listened intently. Nothing. He closed the door and slid the locks shut, one after the other. When he turned around, Quin was sprawled out on the floor, facedown.

Irritation bit at Cillian. What the hell had happened? Quinn reeked of Demon’s Breath, the liquid that passed for alcohol in The Vault. But surely the man wasn’t foolish enough to get drunk while carrying out orders? Well, Cillian would get to the bottom of it, and god help the man if he didn’t have a damn good excuse. The people Cillian worked for were not patient, nor were they merciful, and it would be his neck on the line if they didn’t get what they’d asked for.

He dragged Quinn to a ratty old sofa in a back room and hoisted him up onto it, the drunk man’s head tilting over the back. A bucket of cold, dirty water was next.

I really should just slap him out of it.

But breaking his face wasn’t going to get Cillian what he needed. Experience had taught him that.

As soon as the first splash of water touched Quinn’s face, his eyes and mouth shot open and he choked on the filthy liquid. Gagging, he raised his hands over his head until the bucket had finished its onslaught.

“Hey, a—” But as the water cleared from his eyes, he seemed to realize where he was and who he was talking to. The color drained from his face and he gagged again, though his mouth was now dry.

He’d better not throw up. Or worse.  

He wouldn’t be the first one, but Cillian was in no mood to clean up after incontinent scavengers. Not today. He crossed his arms over his chest and took a step back. “Raphael Quinn.”

Quinn peered up at him from under his soaked forelock, water dripping from his chin. His chest rose and fell swiftly.

“Where is the requisition?”

“I don’t have it, but I—”

Cillian leaned toward him. “Why not?”

Quinn shrank back. “I was attacked.” He brushed his fingers over a large graze on his forehead.

“And?”

“And they took it.”

Cillian stared at Quinn, waiting.

The other man held out for only a few seconds. “It wasn’t my fault. I—”

“It wasn’t your fault? You stink of liquor.”

“I know, but—”

“But what? Your country asks you to acquire something extremely valuable, and rather than bring it straight here as you were commissioned to do, you decide to go drinking instead?”

“No! Yes. I—” He clamped his jaw shut under Cillian’s glare.

Cillian swore inwardly. Quinn wasn’t the first man to need liquid courage to make a delivery. His reputation was a double-edged sword. On one hand, it made it much easier to keep up the charade of The Vault, but on the other, it caused normally brave and honorable men to degrade themselves in fear. The initial thrill of his power had long since gone.

If only they knew how little power I actually have.

Quinn was still jabbering away. “But I can make it up to you.”

“You have more First jewelry?”

“No. But I can get you something else, something double the value. My team—”

“I need First jewelry.”

“Well, you’re going to get it. Just not from me.”

Cillian sighed. “How?”

“I’m pretty sure I know who rolled me. I’d bet the shirt off my back she’ll be knocking on your door before tomorrow with an item you just might be interested in—for double our price, of course.” His voice was bitter.

He was right. That was usually how it worked. As the city was picked over and many resources became scarcer, the Guilds had begun to use more than their deductive talents to find the most valuable merchandise. It wasn’t just the compensation they received—a pittance. Rather, it was the prestige, allotted in points, that the Guilds chased. The promise that when the war was over, those points would be tallied and parlayed into the Guild’s standing and circumstance in the new world. A beautiful lie.

“That may be so, but that doesn’t absolve you.”

“I know, but as I said, I’ll make it up to you. My Guild is one of the best there is, B— Sir.”

Beast. There it was. Anger rose before he swiftly tamped it down. It was his own doing that they saw him this way. It had been a necessity. But that didn’t make it any less infuriating.

“One of the best? That’s a pretty bold claim considering you’re sitting here empty-handed and covered in sewer water.”

“We are! Do you remember that rose prism you received a few months back? Well, that was us. Our Beauty found it. She has an uncanny ability to locate the rarest items. She reads a lot, you see, including maps and—”

Cillian did remember the prism. It had been a tricky find, no doubt. But other than bragging, what did that have to do with anything? “I don’t—

“She found the prism? That is impressive.” The voice came from behind Cillian, and he winced. The last thing he needed right now was Cybel getting involved. The little bot was too social for its own good, a defect in its programming.

He turned and spoke through gritted teeth. “Yes. It is. But it doesn’t have anything to—”

“We could use some more help around here.” She ignored the tone of his voice, like always. The small humanoid robot was a source of both great affection and great annoyance. “Weren’t you saying that just the other day? And if she’s as good as he claims…”

While it was true that he and Cybel could use more help, there was no way in hell he was going to take on some brainwashed Guild member, or anyone else from The Vault, for that matter. And Cybel bloody well knew it. It was too risky. Besides, why would he want to deal with people any more than he already did? He kept his interactions to a minimum—it was better for everyone that way.

Out of the question, no matter how good she might be.

The color leached from Quinn’s face. “No! I wasn’t suggesting— No. Absolutely not.”

His refusal rankled. I’m too used to getting what I want. But more than that, the Guilds had sworn unyielding loyalty to The Vault’s cause, to give whatever, whenever they could to continue the war effort. Some, like the Nightforge, took it to extremes, their members little more than skin and bones as they donated everything beyond what they needed for bare survival. Glory Through Sacrifice. Quinn had no right to refuse, and Cillian couldn’t let him. If word somehow got out that someone had refused his order… The smallest of rebellions could lead to larger ones, ones he couldn’t control.

There were rules the Guilds were expected to abide by: keep to their assigned sectors, do not interfere with other Guilds, locate whatever items were required, give any items found to the cause, and never question orders. The Guilds, of course, flaunted some of these rules and Cillian knew it—the proof sat on the couch in front of him. Minor infractions he didn’t have the time or the patience to deal with. But unquestioning loyalty? That was non-negotiable.

Besides, taking her would also serve as a warning to Quinn on a personal level. This Beauty, whoever she was, obviously meant a great deal to him, that he would refuse the Beast. A perverse spitefulness came over Cillian. He would teach Quinn a lesson, if only for a brief time. He would keep the girl for a week or two then send her back.

Cillian flexed his hands inside his gloves, making sure Quinn got the hint.

The horrified look on the man’s face suggested he did.

“You would refuse me? And The Vault?”

Quinn faltered. “No. I— I just…I can’t grant you that. Anything else. I have other Guild members who are even better than Beauty. You can have your pick of them. Plus, I’ll get you goods of greater value—”

“No. I want her. This Beauty.”

“But—” Quinn’s chest hitched, as though he was going to vomit. Did she really mean that much to him?

“Unless you want to come in her place? It was your…mistake, after all.”

Quinn stared at him as though it were a battle of wills. Yet only seconds later he broke, nodding like a senti doll. “Of course, of course. She’ll be here. Sorry for the reluctance on my part—she’s very capable and that’s not always easy to come by.”

“No, it’s not.” Cillian looked at him pointedly.

Quinn quailed. He gripped the fabric of the couch, his knuckles pale.

“Why are you still sitting here, Quinn? Go.”

“But I— What about Beauty?”

“Make sure she’s here tomorrow at 9 a.m. sharp.”

Beauty, Unmasked by A.W. Cross