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The merchant was only too glad when the Beast went away, and though he could not sleep for sadness, he lay down until the sun rose. Then, after a hasty breakfast, he went to gather Beauty’s rose, and mounted his horse, which carried him off so swiftly that in an instant he had lost sight of the palace, and he was still wrapped in gloomy thoughts when it stopped before the door of the cottage.

His sons and daughters, who had been very uneasy at his long absence, rushed to meet him, eager to know the result of his journey, which, seeing him mounted upon a splendid horse and wrapped in a rich mantle, they supposed to be favorable. He hid the truth from them at first, only saying sadly to Beauty as he gave her the rose:

“Here is what you asked me to bring you; you little know what it has cost.”

But this excited their curiosity so greatly that presently he told them his adventures from beginning to end, and then they were all very unhappy. The girls lamented loudly over their lost hopes, and the sons declared that their father should not return to this terrible castle, and began to make plans for killing the Beast if it should come to fetch him. But he reminded them that he had promised to go back. Then the girls were very angry with Beauty, and said it was all her fault, and that if she had asked for something sensible this would never have happened, and complained bitterly that they should have to suffer for her folly.

Poor Beauty, much distressed, said to them:

“I have, indeed, caused this misfortune, but I assure you I did it innocently. Who could have guessed that to ask for a rose in the middle of summer would cause so much misery? But as I did the mischief it is only just that I should suffer for it. I will therefore go back with my father to keep his promise.”

At first nobody would hear of this arrangement, and her father and brothers, who loved her dearly, declared that nothing should make them let her go; but Beauty was firm. As the time drew near she divided all her little possessions between her sisters, and said good-by to everything she loved, and when the fatal day came she encouraged and cheered her father as they mounted together the horse which had brought him back. It seemed to fly rather than gallop, but so smoothly that Beauty was not frightened; indeed, she would have enjoyed the journey if she had not feared what might happen to her at the end of it. Her father still tried to persuade her to go back, but in vain. While they were talking the night fell, and then, to their great surprise, wonderful colored lights began to shine in all directions, and splendid fireworks blazed out before them; all the forest was illuminated by them, and even felt pleasantly warm, though it had been bitterly cold before. This lasted until they reached the avenue of orange trees, where were statues holding flaming torches, and when they got nearer to the palace they saw that it was illuminated from the roof to the ground, and music sounded softly from the courtyard. “The Beast must be very hungry,” said Beauty, trying to laugh, “if he makes all this rejoicing over the arrival of his prey.”

Beauty and the Beast by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve

Father was home. Stinking and soaking, an abrasion on his head crusted with blood. Purple bruises were forming on his skin, and he walked with a limp.

“Father!” Beauty rushed up to him, draping his arm across her shoulder as she helped him to the table. “Kaitlin, quick, get the others.” But Kaitlin was already sprinting down the hall to the dorms. This was bad. No one had ever dared to attack Father before, not so openly, where everyone else would be able to see.

No one but the Beast.

Damn him. Not only had he hurt the man who’d raised her, he’d put the whole Guild in a vulnerable position. If anyone had seen Father making his way home, the word about his weakened state would spread like wildfire.

“Beauty, I’m fine.” He batted away her hands. “Leave it.”

The others converged on the kitchen. Jere’s face was like thunder. “What the hell happened?”

“Father was attacked by the Beast.”

Chaos broke out in the room, threats of retribution and violence. Impotent, empty threats.

Only Felix said nothing. He sat down and tied his boots, jerking them so hard that one of the laces snapped.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Father winced as he spoke, and a small line of blood welled on his lip.

“Where do you think? I’m going to pay that bastard a visit.” Felix stood and patted his pockets.

“Sit down. Nobody’s going anywhere.” Father nodded as Violet handed him a cloth for his lip.

Felix frowned. “But—”

“I said sit down.” It was a command. “You will not be going anywhere near the Beast. Any of you. Now promise me.”

Felix refused to meet his eyes.

Father grabbed his arm, his fingers digging into the fabric of his coat. “I said promise me!”

“I promise.” Felix jerked his arm away and retreated to the other side of the room to sulk.

“What’s the matter with you?” Father turned to Violet. Her eyes were bloodshot, and one of her cuticles was bleeding.

“She was just worried about you, the silly cow.” Kaitlin rolled her eyes and took a seat next to Violet. “I told her you’d be fine.” She dug her elbow into Violet’s ribs and smiled too brightly at her. “I told you he’d be fine. Now you can stop being so ridiculous.”

“I really am fine, Violet.” This time, Father’s voice was kind. He reached out and patted her hand, which only made her choke back another sob.

Kaitlin’s smile turned grim and Violet winced.

Beauty kindled the fire and suspended a large pot of water over it. The electricity was out again. They were lucky if they got more than a few hours a day now. They did have a generator, but they used it only to power the security system.

The others—aside from Felix, who had his pride, after all—took a seat at the table, and Beauty joined them as she waited for the water to boil.

“So what happened? Why did the Beast attack you?” Jere spoke brusquely, biting off each word. The attack on Father had clearly shaken him.

Father rubbed his thumb over a welt on the back of his hand. “He wasn’t happy with the quality of the jewelry.”

Jere exploded. “What? The quality? He does realize we’re only retrieving the stupid things, not making them, doesn’t he? It’s an artifact.” He gripped the edge of the table, his nails gouging the soft wood. “And he beat you for that?”

The others murmured their discontent and the tension in the room grew thicker.

Beauty stared at Father, at the way his eyes were downcast, at the pressure he applied to the wound. He’s lying.

But about what? Clearly, he had been attacked.

“So what are we going to do about it then?” Felix spoke between gritted teeth. He left his corner and came to stand at Jere’s shoulder.

“We’re going to do nothing.” Father wiped the blood from his skin with determined strokes, keeping his eyes firmly on the cloth.

“Why not? He can’t treat us this way. I don’t give a damn about his reputation. We can take him.”

“It’s not that simple, Felix. It’s not about whether we could beat him in a fight. He’s our only link to the outside world right now. The way we deal with him will impact our future when the war is over. Do you really want to jeopardize that over a couple of bumps and bruises?”

“So that’s it? We just let him treat us however he wants?”

“For now, yes. We play nice.”

“But how far will it go?” Kaitlin’s expression was calculating. “If he gets away with this, what will he do the next time?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Father sighed and dropped the cloth on the table. “We have to be smart, pick our battles as we always have. This is no exception.”

Beauty glanced around the table. He was losing them. They’d made their reputation by being smart, cunning, and ruthless. This was the first time Father had ever shown them weakness.

He sensed it as well. “Look, think of it as a long game. We bide our time—for now. When the war is over, he loses that position of power over us. Then,” he mustered a wicked grin, “we remind him of what he did, and we take care of it.”

There was silence until Jere leaned back from the table and shrugged. “That’s different. I can live with that. As long as he’s not going to go unpunished.” The others murmured in agreement, mollified. Only Felix continued to glower. But he would come around; he always did.

Beauty rose from the table and pulled a mug out of the cupboard. At least Father was home safely. Hopefully, what had happened would distract him from her and Red’s disastrous day. It was a selfish thought, when he sat there bruised and bloody, but she was too tired and disheartened to bear the irritation in his eyes. Or worse, the disappointment. She was already disappointed enough. Not a single contribution today to help end the war. If it did drag on forever, like Violet said, it would be partly her fault.

Dedication, Duty, Defiance.

She sighed. Tomorrow would be a better day. It had to be.

As she poured steaming water over the chicory in the bottom of the mug, Father spoke again.

“There’s more.”

The uneasiness that had plagued Beauty throughout the day deepened, sinking into her very bones.

“Beauty, please sit down.”

Her mind rebelled. Don’t sit. If you do, whatever it is will become true. But her body, used to obeying commands, sat, the mug she’d prepared for him clutched in her hands.

“We have to replace what was…unacceptable.”

That’s it? Beauty breathed a sigh of relief. So why, then, did he look so tense? Artifacts like jewelry were difficult to come by, but not impossible. They could do it in a day if they all worked together.

“Beauty, the Beast has demanded you in reparation.”

The mug shattered. Scalding water gushed between her fingers, the pain so intense that, for a moment, she felt nothing. Then came a fire, hot and all-consuming, and the room spun before her eyes.

“Beauty!” Small hands wrapped around her shoulders, pulling her from the bench and over to the sink. Red. She turned the cold faucet on full blast and plunged Beauty’s hands all the way to the bottom, pressing them against the cold steel. “Breathe, Beauty.”

But she couldn’t. She couldn’t make sense of what was happening. The Beast. Pain. They melded together in her mind, and somewhere, far away, someone screamed.

“Quick, give her this.” A new pain, a sting in her arm. And then…numbness. Her hands still hurt, but the fire had cooled to a low burn. Distant, no longer hers.

“Beauty, sit down.”

As the drugs coursed through her veins, the shapeless fire in her mind tempered, sharpening her wits.

“What do you mean you gave me to the Beast?” The sound came from her mouth, but the voice was too strong, too steady to be hers.

The Beast. The brute who’d beaten her father. Who held their future in his inhuman hands. The monster.

“I didn’t give you to him, Beauty. Of course not.” But his guilty expression said otherwise. “It’s just temporary, to make up for what happened. You’re just going to work as his assistant for a bit.”

“So I get to come home at night?” That wasn’t so bad. She would bear it, for his sake.

“Well, no. I— You have to stay there with him, for as long as he needs you.”

Stay there. For as long as he needs you. “So you sold me.”

“No, I—”

“Yes, you did! I thought— I thought—”  What? That Father cared about you? That you were important? That he loved you?  He’d said himself that love was dangerous. She’d just been too stupid to think that included her. But he’d never cared about her for anything more than what she could bring him.

Fine.

She struggled to her feet, weaving slightly, still lightheaded from the pain and the drugs. Her hands throbbed as she pushed him away when he tried to comfort her. “Get away from me. I’ll go.”

“You will?” The relief in his eyes was the final betrayal.

Beauty, Unmasked by A.W. Cross