He could always do much, much worse.
And what could be worse than losing her hearing? Easy. Losing her eyesight, too. Oh, yes. Her father was that vile. He’d destroyed her hearing with no hope of repair, simply to make her reliant on him, and he had threatened to take her eyesight if ever she betrayed him that way again.
If she wanted out, and she did, she had to adhere to a very strict escape plan. A plan that demanded she remain at the circus for another year. Just a year, and then she could free the otherworlders and run. She could hide forever and never have to fear being found.
Jecis finished his speech about rules and expectations, and motioned Vika forward. She stepped beside him like any other obedient robot. He placed a big hand firmly on her shoulder, and she looked up to watch his lips.
“This is your caregiver,” he said to the otherworlders. “You will treat her better than you treat the customers. You will keep your hands to yourself and your mouths closed, or my men and I will have fun with you before you get that bullet.”
He didn’t wait for their replies—to him, they were irrelevant—but pivoted to face Vika. She met his gaze, no longer surprised to find eyes no longer the color of flowers, but black, like endless cesspools.
He cupped her cheeks and kissed her on the tip of the nose. “If you have any trouble, my heart, do not hesitate to shout for me.”
I will never seek your help. “Thank you.”
“Anything for you.” Instead of moving away, as she’d hoped, he remained in place, his lips pursing. “My new animal is big and fierce and unlike any you have dealt with before. Perhaps I should summon your guard—”
“The circus opens tomorrow,” she interjected quickly, hoping to stop him before he talked himself into it. “There’s so much to do, and there’s no reason to waste anyone’s time watching over me. Besides, no matter how fierce he is, the newcomer would never dare to hurt me. He now knows the consequences of defying you.”
Her father’s grip tightened, nearly crushing her jawbone and defiantly worsening what remained of last week’s “lesson.” “I will waste whoever’s time I wish. You are more important to me than a successful show, and if I think there’s a threat, there’s a threat. I’m far wiser about these things.”
Won’t cry out. “Of course,” she managed to say. If, however, the show did prove unsuccessful and he had forced her bodyguard to remain at her side, preventing Matas from properly preparing for his magic act, Jecis would blame her. He would reprimand her. She would hurt.
With a sigh, he released her. “As if I can deny you anything. Very well, I will allow you to work alone since there are no townies nearby and the otherworlders are contained. But if you come home with a single bruise, my precious one, I will be very upset.”
Well, then. She wouldn’t point out the myriad of bruises already decorating her body. Besides, there was no need. He knew they were there; he had put them there. But while he was allowed to abuse her, anytime, anyplace, no one else was ever extended the same privilege.
He delivered another kiss to the tip of her nose before stalking away, fully assured she would do everything in her power to safeguard herself. He wasn’t wrong. She would. She might dream of leaving her father, might even be planning to do so, but she would never disobey him while she was here.
Did the newcomer have any idea what was in store for him?
If he hadn’t been convinced of Jecis’s malevolence, he would be soon. Jecis punished his animals for the mildest of offenses, though the punishments themselves were never mild. His temper would get the better of him and he would erupt into a fit of rage. He would maim . . . he would ruin . . . and he would kill indiscriminately. . . .
Sadly, those who died were the lucky ones.
Vika walked to the supplies her father’s worker had left behind, never allowing herself to shift her gaze to study the lips of the otherworlders to discover what they were saying about her—and they were saying something, she knew they were, because she could feel the vibrations of their words against her skin. At times like this, she was almost grateful for her deafness.
I’ll escape this hellhole and take you with me, Vika, Wicked Witch of the Worlds. I’ll put you in a cage and oh, the things I’ll do to you . . . This had once come from the Mec she called Rainbow.
You’re nothing more than a circus whore, and you deserve to be in this cage, not me! This had once come from the Cortaz named Crissabelle.
They needed a target for their frustration and rage, and she was the safest bet. She knew that, and had stopped letting it hurt her feelings a long time ago. She would never harm them and certainly never tattle, but it was almost impossible to keep a secret from Jecis. One day, he would find out about the two offenders and bloody their toast.
The words left a sick taste in her mouth.
The rest of the otherworlders refused to look at, talk to, or talk about her, too afraid of what Jecis would do. Actually, no, that wasn’t true. The Targon actually seemed to enjoy her.
Is it time for my sponge bath yet, Vika I Wanta Licka? he was fond of saying. He often referred to himself as Daddy Spanky, and once a day asked her to do the same.
“Eat up, everyone. I’m feeling generous today.” She threw vanilla cookies into each cage, even the Mec’s and the Cortaz’s. Rewarding the Terrible Duo for bad behavior was beyond foolish, but some part of her wanted to make their lives better, even in so small a way.
As the otherworlders dove for the desserts and devoured every crumb, she grabbed a bottle of enzyme spray, a brush and one of the rags, and approached the cage belonging to the Bree Lian she’d named Dots.
His race was known for the multicolored fur that covered their bodies from head to toe, and Dots was no different. He resembled a long-haired cheetah, with an underlay of gold and spots of black, yet his mannerisms were as uncatlike as possible. As muscled as he was, he didn’t walk so much as thunder from one end of the cage to the other.
Still, he kind of reminded her of Dobi, the beautiful tiger who had peed on everything, including Vika, and every time she looked at him, a pang sliced through her heart.
Don’t go there. Right. The past was off-limits, and for good reason. Looking back brought only regret. Regret brought sorrow. Sorrow brought depression, and depression brought torment. She’d had enough of that, thanks.
So. Moving on. Each of the different species bore different physical characteristics, as well as different innate abilities. Some Bree Lians could poison an enemy with their teeth or nails. Some Cortazes could teleport. Some Mecs could hypnotize with the changing colors of their skin. Some Terans could leap a mile in a single bound. But it was utterly impossible to know each and every one of the abilities these particular otherworlders possessed, which was why her father had gone black market and purchased slave bands.