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Beauty and the Beast: The Only One Who Didn't Run Away Read online

  “You are the one who calls himself Beast?” she asks.

  I nod. Who else would I be? “It wouldn’t have been my first choice for a name,” I reply, trying to be charming. “But it seemed to fit.”

  She reaches across her chest and into her pack. “Sorry about this,” she says, pulling out a long, silver dagger. “Nothing personal.”

  Then she throws it directly at my heart.

  If I had not been so shocked when I realized the heat of the flames had caused lines to appear on the map, I would have laughed. We had tried everything but setting it on fire, and then it turns out that was exactly what we had needed to do. When Handsome sees my expression, he turns to see what has me so enthralled. It takes him a moment to realize what he is looking at. Then he grabs Veronica and the map and runs from the room. I follow close after them, glancing back only to see the boy sneer and turn away.

  “It is magic!” Veronica says breathlessly when we shut ourselves back in our room.

  I lean close to the paper and sniff it. “I am pretty certain it is lemon juice.”

  “Whoever made this map,” Handsome says, ducking under a beam to reach for it, “went to a lot of trouble to protect it.”

  We use the last rays of sun to examine it. Now the parchment clearly shows the woods; long, windy roads; a cliff; a seaport; and then a group of buildings—not quite a castle, more like a fancy estate where a high-ranking nobleman would live. At the very bottom of the map lies the mermaid fountain. At least we are in the right starting place.

  Veronica is so happy that she does a little jig, kicking up her heels and clapping her hands. I do not relish ruining her mood, but I feel I must point out that nowhere on the map does it tell us what her mother’s destination was. The buildings? The fountain? Somewhere in between?

  Handsome leans closer to me and whispers, “I do not want to frighten Veronica, but I think that boy saw what happened with the map.”

  My eyes widen. “Do you think he would try to take it?”

  “I do not know,” Handsome says. “But he seems the sort to get what he wants.”

  “That he does,” I have to agree.

  “I can hear you,” Veronica says, continuing to dance. “And you do not have to protect me. I am not a child.”

  Handsome and I share a small smile. Of course she is a child. He and I are not much past that ourselves.

  Just then hushed voices outside our door bring her dance to a swift end. We spring into action. Handsome double-checks that he had pushed the lock closed. Veronica and I run over to the wall and each peek through one of the eye-sized knots in the old wood. The holes are only waist high, so we cannot see too much. Still, it is enough to recognize the boy and his father. No one else around here dresses like that. They are each holding a towel and a ball of soap.

  “The innkeeper refused to reveal their room number to me,” the boy is saying. “But judging from their ratty clothes, they are in the poor section.”

  “We were lucky the best room at the inn was still available,” his father says, reaching down to violently scratch his leg.

  Veronica barely stifles a giggle.

  “Shh!” Handsome warns, but he is smiling, too. His smile quickly fades with the boy’s next words.

  “I want that map.”

  “What makes you think it is valuable?”

  “The way the girl protected it. If it were not a treasure map, she would have let me see it.”

  “All right,” the father says, now scratching the other leg. “After we bathe, we shall find the children. Every innkeeper has his price.” And off they go.

  We step away from the wall, no one daring to speak until we hear the latrine door close firmly behind them.

  “We must leave tonight,” Veronica says. Neither of us argues with her. We rush to repack our bags. Veronica stops my hand as I am about to shove the monk’s robe into my pack. “You should wear that. You, too, Handsome. In case the boy and his father are only pretending to bathe, or if their groomsman lies in wait.”

  “You are right,” Handsome says, pulling his out.

  “But where will we go once we leave the inn?” I ask, slipping the robe over my head and shoulders. “Darkness is soon upon us, and this is the only inn in town.”

  “I do not know,” Veronica replies, slinging her pack over her shoulder. “We shall worry about that once we are clear of this place.”

  Handsome unlocks the door and peeks out. He steps through and waves us along. “One thing I must do first,” he whispers, motioning for us to stay in the doorway. He tiptoes down to the end of the hall toward the latrine. I hold my breath. He is so close to them!

  He slowly pushes the bolt across the door, successfully locking them inside. “Just buying us some time,” he says with a wink.

  “Nicely done,” I say, nodding appreciatively.

  And so one little girl and two hooded monks sneak down the stairs of The Welcome Inn, trying to look casual and no doubt failing miserably. Flavian takes one look at us, rolls his eyes, and waves for us to follow him. Having no better options, we let him lead us out the back door, where the horses and carriages are stored.

  He holds open the door of the most opulent of the carriages. The doors are gilded with gold leaf, and the cushions are plush and firm. “Get in,” he orders. “You can stay here until morn. When they come down to speak with the innkeeper, I will tell them you left long ago. They will never think to look in their own carriage. And the map? Nothing but a guide to the best places to collect berries.”

  “How do you know all this?” I ask, hurrying inside after Handsome.

  “It is my job to know everything that goes on at the inn.”

  Veronica steps onto the carriage stairs and gives Flavian a hug. “You should go home to your daughter,” she whispers into his oversize ear. “She would rather have you over whatever coin you make here.” Then she slips something into his hand and jumps inside the carriage.

  I wake to Handsome shaking my shoulder. “Time to go,” he whispers. “Daybreak will soon be here, and we do not know when the boy and his father will be leaving.”

  I nod and stretch, feeling surprisingly well rested. The carriage was cozy and warm, and the bench as soft and plush as it had appeared. I do not know how much coin Veronica gave Flavian last night, but he not only stood guard outside all night, he brought us crescent rolls and warm butter for breakfast.

  Veronica has decided that the group of buildings on the map is the place her mother most likely sought, so that is where we are headed. The first leg of the journey consists of miles and miles of road, which would take us weeks if we were to attempt to walk it. So instead we climb from our plush overnight lodging to a barely-holding-together-at-the-seams carriage-for-hire.

  The new carriage comes with a grouchy coachman and a very gassy horse, but we are putting distance between us and The Welcome Inn, and that is a good thing. Veronica must have a seemingly endless supply of coin, because the coachman agreed to drive us as far as we need without asking questions.

  We stop only when the coachman or his horse gets tired. One night we even sleep in a barn, with nothing but some scruffy farm animals to keep us warm. If I thought our horse had a bad odor, that was before I spent the night with a cow sleeping not an arm’s length from my face.

  On the third day, Handsome tries to make the time pass faster by making up stories about the welcome we shall receive when we arrive at the grand estate. Never mind that we do not even know who lives there, or why Veronica’s mother wanted to go there, or even if that truly was her destination. “Splendid gardens and babbling brooks await us,” he promises. “Feasts of grilled lamb and peach pies and cold cider. Private bathhouses where the water is topped with fragrant rose petals, and towels as soft as velvet. Servants to dress you in fine linens and —”

  “And my mother shall be there to greet us,” Veronica finishes.

  Handsome hesitates, then says, “I hope you are right.”

  Time slows